Up From the Ashes
This is a new contemporary Lizzie and Darcy story set in beautiful British Columbia, once again. The names have been changed to protect the innocent, and even the not-so-innocent. ;) There are a few twists and plot deviations from canon, but the path of Lizzie and Darcy’s relationship will remain quite the same as it ever was.
I would like to thank my two best friends, the most wonderful women I know, and loyal betas, Alyson and Alicia, for agreeing to again put up with all my pestering, my silly mistakes. My gratitude can’t be expressed. I love you both.
Alicia – thank you for making my trip to Florida possible – this one’s for you.
Elana looked about herself and struggled to hold back the tears that had been building ever since she arrived. This was what she had driven 3000 miles for? The torn plastic flapped in the wind. A shower of raindrops pelted in upon her and she shifted her position up against the potting bench, away from the gaping hole in the arch of the greenhouse wall. The smell of decaying vegetation filled her nostrils. The shelf which ran the length of the greenhouse had collapsed, spilling plastic pots, rusted tools, and containers of fertilisers and herbicides in a haphazard mess at her feet. Behind her, row upon row of fledgling plants were bone dry and brittle. The only things lush and green were the weeds that had forced their way through almost everything and flourished in a wild tangle where the shredded plastic had exposed this far end of the greenhouse to the elements. And the other five greenhouses were no better. Her shoulders sagged at the enormity of the job that lay ahead of her. She leaned over to pick up a bent trowel, a rusted cutting knife, and pulled at a weed that had engulfed a stack of pots in its trailing branches. She turned, searching for a place to put them. The whole thing was futile! A wave of bitterness swept through her and with an oath she hurled them at the dingy mottled plastic that stretched up around her. Maybe selling wasn’t such a bad idea after all.
Running feet alerted her to Cody’s return. She dragged the back of her hand across her cheeks to erase her tears and faced the doorway. He was rushing up the centre path, his eyes shining.
"Mom, mom! I found pumpkins." He threw himself into her arms. "Isn’t this place the greatest?"
Of all the mistakes Elana had made in her young life, perhaps the worst was that day in ’92 when she had committed herself heart and soul to Greg Wilkins. At the time she thought he was the answer to all her dreams. She was twenty, in love, and believed his promise to love honour and cherish her till death did they part. She had no reason not to.
When Elana was sixteen her grandmother had died, leaving a sizeable fortune to be divided among her only son, his wife, and their three young daughters. Tom Barnes had been shocked at the full worth of the inheritance – his mother had quietly sat on the nest egg without telling a soul – and, in truth, he really had no idea how to go about disbursing it. He had a lot of respect for his eldest daughter’s common sense, so he created a checking account for Elana and put the bulk of her quarter million dollars into term deposits and mutual funds. When she was eighteen his name was removed as a co-signer and it was, in fact, all hers to do with as she liked. The two other girls were much younger so Tom merely put their money in trust for them.
Tom Barnes’ faith in Elana was not entirely misplaced. She was much like her grandmother. She did not tell a soul about her inheritance and she did not spend freely. But money is insidious and can’t help but influence a person, especially one so young. She went to college straight after high school with no real goal in mind, so she chose general studies. She enjoyed the college social life and her marks reflected her lack of effort and attendance. With all that money guaranteeing security she had little motivation. The temptation to travel was great and she often joined one group of friends or other for a week at some tropical paradise. Anything to escape Ontario’s cold winters.
While Elana had a large circle of friends she had trouble finding a steady boyfriend. She was pretty enough and not shy by any stretch, but she was not willing to give out, and as soon as dates turned into groping matches her firm ‘no’ usually put an end to any budding relationship. At nineteen and a half she had begun to think herself a hopeless case. One night, after breaking up with a great looking guy who she really had thought might be different from all the rest, her girlfriends took her out on the town to console her. She didn’t normally drink much, but she was feeling reckless and didn’t pay attention to the amount of daiquiris they kept buying her. It wasn’t long before the guys from the neighbouring table joined them.
Greg sat beside her and began commiserating with her about the jerk who had dumped her. He was blonde with the most candid blue eyes she had ever seen. And he was gorgeous. He told her he had seen her around campus and wanted to meet her for quite some time. He swept her off her feet and got her loaded in the process. Too loaded to be circumspect about what she said to him. Too loaded to remember anything in the morning. And he never enlightened her about the things she had given away – her reluctance to enter into a casual sexual relationship, her desire for love, and her financial status – but he used them to his advantage. The next morning she woke up in his bed, fully clothed, while he slept on the living room couch. She was overcome with relief that nothing had happened – that she’d been with a person who had morals and integrity. Greg earned her respect that morning.
He was amazing. They saw each other regularly from that day. He treated her to dinners, took her to shows and never attempted anything beyond a few sweet kisses. In fact he had her yearning for more. She skipped classes to hang out with him. They talked, laughed, shared their innermost dreams, and then one night he proposed while they were out under the stars. Nothing could be more perfect.
Elana wanted him to come home and meet her family but he insisted that he could not leave work for the trip to Kingston. Instead they ran off one weekend to Niagara Falls with only Greg’s best friend and his wife as witnesses. Anyway, he had assured her, it would be so wonderful to surprise them with the fait accompli So two weeks later they drove into her parents’ driveway, Elana happier than she had ever been, Greg brimming with charm and confidence.
Frances Barnes was ecstatic. Her daughter, married, and to such a handsome man. Everything about him exuded success – his clothes, his self-assurance, the huge diamond on her daughter’s finger. Katrina and Marisa couldn’t believe their sister had caught such a hunk. Tom Barnes held back. He didn’t want to hurt Elana by not accepting her husband immediately, but there was something about Greg that set his hackles rising. He was too smooth and there was a look in his eyes as they rested upon Elana that Tom did not trust. It was too much like avarice. He shook himself mentally, knowing that his reaction could be a jealous one. If asked, he would have to admit that he didn’t think anybody good enough for his favourite daughter. But what he wanted, above all, was her happiness, and without a doubt she was happy.
Tom’s concern for his daughter led him to ask her how she had protected her inheritance and he was shocked to learn that she considered all her and Greg’s assets shared. He may not have brought as much money into the marriage as she but he had his up and coming business career and his investment savvy. He promised to double their capital in record time and she had every faith that he could do it. Tom’s heart sank, but rather than put a wedge between himself and his daughter he kept his worries to himself.
The wedge, however, became firmly planted. Greg drove it there himself. Though before their marriage he had assured Elana he wanted nothing more than to settle close to her family’s home and hearth in Kingston, he now insisted that they had to move to Halifax. It was a promotion and Elana could not help but accede. Later he confessed that he worried that her father disliked him and he wanted more than anything to prove himself to the man. He promised they would visit often for holidays, but time and again those promises had to be broken as business matters intervened. Elana, wanting to be the best wife that she could, supported him in everything he did. She could not understand how her father could not see all her husband’s obvious good qualities. She remembered his subtle coldness to Greg when they had visited, and she unconsciously started to draw away.
Greg bought a new Porsche Boxter. She thought it a little extravagant but his patent joy at owning such a vehicle was irresistible. And he insisted it was for both of them, and that they deserved to spoil themselves once in a while. For their six-month anniversary he bought her the most beautiful emerald earrings and pendant. He said nothing was too good for her and she tried her best not to think about how much they cost.
They leased a luxury apartment in the downtown area. She would have rather had a rancher out in the suburbs, but he said this was better for business entertaining, not that they entertained too often in the end. Elana spent her days wandering from aesthetic room to aesthetic room, looking out the windows at concrete and glass, escaping to the gym, and living for the evenings when Greg would be home and her life would be full again. She took gourmet food classes, cooked lavish dinners, and made the most of their time together. And he never once omitted to tell her how much he loved her every day for that first year. As it stretched to two, and then three, he was almost as loving, but here and there cracks appeared in the façade of their perfect marriage. He worked later, often had to go away on sudden business trips, and became very jealous of anyone Elana spent too much time with. He discouraged her from going back to school though she found her days empty and unfulfilled. He put off all the trips they planned to Ontario. He discouraged visits from her family. Sometimes he drank too heavily and then he became resentful and mean. He always insisted on having sex on those nights, even though she said no. And he was always remorseful in the mornings. He begged her forgiveness. He showered her with attention. He promised her the moon. And she always forgave him. One of those mornings as he lay in her arms telling her how much he adored her, he confessed that work was not going well, some investments had failed, and the stress of hiding it from her was causing his erratic behaviour. She was more understanding than ever.
They moved into a smaller apartment in an older building. It had character and charm. Elana enjoyed decorating it and their love flourished. It was like the first year again. Business improved, investments picked up, and Greg finally gave in to Elana’s desire to start a family. The first three months of her pregnancy he almost waited on her hand and foot, then he found it more and more difficult to take time away from his business obligations. He missed most of the childbirth classes but made an attempt to read the books. At least, he told Elana he did. She went into labour unexpectedly two weeks early – she couldn’t contact him on his cell phone. Cody was born without his father present but the next morning Greg appeared at Elana’s bedside with half a florist’s shop and more metallic blue balloons than she had ever seen. He took his son in his arms, joined her on the bed, and they spent the morning weaving stories of the tiny boy’s future.
Elana had never experienced the kind of love that she felt when she first laid eyes on Cody. All she wanted to do those initial few weeks was hold him in her arms. It didn’t bother her that Greg didn’t so much as change a diaper; she was happy to do everything for the little love. Greg had promised to bring her family out, but in the end it was only Frances that came. She stayed a week doting on her grandson, flirting with her son-in-law, and allowing Elana to run herself ragged cooking and cleaning for the lot of them.
The first few months of Cody’s life, Elana was so involved with the baby that she didn’t notice Greg’s waning attention or lack of interest in the boy. Her mornings were no longer empty, and when he went on business trips, which he did more and more frequently, she was no longer lonely. When he told her that he had to go to New York for a three-month stint, she accepted it without concern; when it stretched to six months, still she did not worry. They talked regularly and he always said he loved her. He sent her gifts. When he came home for Cody’s first birthday it was as if he had never been gone. Two weeks later he was back in the Boxter and on his way to Toronto, his fervent kisses on her lips. He never called. He never came back. It took a notice from her landlord saying that rent was three months past due for her to realise that she and Cody had been deserted.
Finances had been taken out of her hands upon her marriage. Elana hadn’t so much as balanced a bankbook since Greg had taken charge. She’d had implicit faith in him. It had been entirely misplaced. She was shocked by the notice from the landlord, devastated by Greg’s abandonment, torturing herself about what she may have done to drive him away, worried that something terrible had happened to him, and desperately trying to hold everything together for the sake of her child. She went to the manager’s office, wrote a check for the entire balance, and apologised profusely. The next day, when she was paying for a cartload of food and diapers at the grocery store, her credit card was dishonoured. She tried another but it was over the limit too. Her debit card would not accept the transaction. Red faced and confused she scraped together all the cash she had in her pockets and the bottom of her purse and then selected the bare necessities from the bags around her while the people in line glared and complained.
There was much worse to come. A visit to her bank showed her that she had no term deposits, no mutual funds, not so much as a bank balance. The rent check could not go through. She was destitute and homeless. Tears did not come. This was a time for action, not reaction. She returned to the apartment, met with the manager and apologised once again, promised to pay what was owed, and was given till the end of the month. Her first thought was the emeralds. They were sure to cover the rent and give her enough for a deposit on a new place. No matter how much they meant to her she knew she had to sell them. Anyway, how much did they really mean now, after her betrayal? She had always been willing to share all she had with Greg. It seemed that wasn’t enough. He’d wanted everything for himself. And he had from day one, she told herself bitterly. The emeralds were not in her jewellery box. Or Anywhere. That explained Greg’s final visit home. Elana tried to forget the fun they had shared, their kisses, the love they had made. The whole fabric of her life had unravelled. If it had not been for Cody the emptiness would have been complete and she would have lost herself to the wind. But she had to stay together for him. They fed off each other and made it possible to survive through a time more grim than anything she could conceive.
Her engagement ring did not bring enough to pay the back rent. She sold the furniture, her clothes, anything anyone would take off her hands. She found a dingy basement suite and put almost all her cash into her new landlord’s eager hands. She knew she should go home, back to her parents in Kingston, but she could not face the enormity of what had happened. She could not admit to how totally she had been duped. She let pride take over and vowed that she would show the world that she had the strength and sagacity to stand on her own two feet. As if the world even cared.
Elana refused to put Cody into day-care so that she could work. She also refused to go on welfare. That would never be an option. Receiving all that money at the age of sixteen, she had never worked a day in her life. She was twenty-five, a single parent, and had no work experience. Her options were extremely limited. At the local Laundromat she noticed a bulletin board with community notices, things for sale, and help wanted advertisements. She took down all the numbers of people that needed day-care. A week later she had two more toddlers to take care of. Luckily they were both sweet kids, if very active, and what little she made paid the bills, just barely. Every night she lay down at seven with Cody, completely exhausted, and slept through until six am when he was ready to start his day.
A year later she got a job at a day-care centre. They let her bring Cody with her. The pay was only marginally better, but the advantages were more than she had ever expected. It got her out of her tiny apartment, she met new people, and she began believing in herself again. She worked there until Cody was in Kindergarten. His school experience convinced Elana that she needed to move to a better neighbourhood. She found the dark basement suite oppressive too, and longed to be somewhere light and bright and open. In September she found a job out in the suburbs at a tropical nursery growing indoor plants. She knew nothing about plants besides that they needed watering and weeding, but her employer was impressed by her sincerity and determination. Her hours enabled her to drop Cody at school on her way to work and pick him up on her way home. She couldn’t ask for anything more, except a place to live within walking distance of both establishments. She ended up in another tiny basement suite, but at least this one had windows.
She was ready to make peace with her family, but not to become dependent on them. Her parents visited - a poignant and warm reunion that showed her just how very much she had missed them. She thought her heart would burst as she watched her dad and Cody play together in the rambling back yard. Her mother even made an effort not to voice her regrets about Greg too often. They wanted her to come home and live with them, but she refused. Her father recognised her fierce need for independence but he insisted on buying her a used car for her birthday and paying for a lawyer so that she could finally get a divorce and rid herself of her connection to Greg.
The day that Cody’s second year of elementary school ended, three things happened. Elana’s divorce became final and she had full custody of Cody, the only outcome she really cared about. The nursery, which had been having financial problems, closed down for good, leaving her unemployed once again, and she finally came to the realisation that holding out because of pride was foolish; she wanted to go home. Everything that didn’t fit into the Volvo was sold in a garage sale or donated to Goodwill. Within a week Elana and Cody began the long drive to Kingston.
You can’t go home. The home Elana was searching for no longer existed. It hadn’t existed for nearly twelve years. She wasn’t with her parents a week before she realised that what she had really wanted was her old life back – before Greg Wilkins had turned it upside down. But her life was Cody now and there was only one direction she could go. Forward.
Gone was the house of her childhood. Her parents now lived in a large modern house that was overly decorated. Katrina and Marisa were both married, happily for the present. Her father had insisted on prenups to protect their investments. It was a joy to have a few weeks of complete relaxation but Elana knew that she had to do something to start creating a new life for her and Cody. One evening her father called her into his office and laid out a proposition that seemed like the answer to everything. It meant moving away again, but it also gave her control over her destiny.
His uncle had died about five years before leaving him a property on Vancouver Island. It was five acres in the agricultural land freeze, and it had a small greenhouse business upon it. Tom had left it in the hands of a realtor all that time, so the business was not operational, but the house had been rented out and kept up, and there was a groundskeeper installed to maintain the outbuildings. A neighbouring equestrian centre wanted to buy them out, but he had refused to sell. He had given Elana money once before and it had not worked out – this time he was offering her opportunity. In his mind it had always been hers, but he had waited to transfer it to Elana until Greg had no further claim on her. He knew that if that vulture had any idea that Elana had equity he would have slithered back to charm it away from her.
Elana studied the pictures in the file her father had given her. A cute rancher and six plastic covered greenhouses. It was not the same type of operation as she had worked in, but she thought she knew enough about the business to give it a shot. Besides, what she had in tenacity and drive more than made up for what she lacked in expertise. It appeared idyllic; bordered by Douglas fir and hemlock, a mild West Coast climate, and no one to answer to but herself.
The decision made, Elana and Cody enjoyed the rest of their summer with the family; barbecues, swimming outings, evenings out on the deck reminiscing about her childhood. The plan was to take the Volvo across Canada after Labour Day weekend. A young associate of Tom’s was recruited to help with the driving in return for being dropped off in Vancouver to visit his mother. The ferry trip to the Island and drive up from Nanaimo to Courtney was the only leg of the journey Elana and Cody had to make on their own. In Courtney she met up with the realtor and was given keys and directions to her new home. He looked a little cagey and suspicious as he passed over the final documentation for Elana to sign, releasing his services. He reminded her that there was still an offer standing upon her property and suggested that it was really in her best interest to sell. Elana could not get out of his office fast enough.
As directed, she drove through the next two sets of lights and found herself on Headquarters Road. She drove past the high school and the fairgrounds and then took the second turning to the left. Haven Road. She thought it somewhat portentous and felt all the eager anticipation of finally arriving at her destination after such a long and tiring journey. She barely took in the well-maintained fencing and elaborate entranceway of Stewart Stables. All she cared about was her five acres. She almost missed the driveway; it was overgrown and rutted. As she manoeuvred around the potholes she kept her eyes open for the first view of her house. When she broke through the trees all she could think was, ‘That picture dad had must have been taken well over five years ago; nothing could fall to ruin so quickly, surely.’ She parked the car. In a stunned state and with a chill creeping throughout her system she took Cody’s hand and wandered back, behind the dilapidated house, and began a slow trudge from one greenhouse to the next. Her haven was looking more and more like an albatross.
Running feet alerted her to Cody’s return. She dragged the back of her hand across her cheeks to erase her tears and faced the doorway. He was rushing up the centre path, his eyes shining.
"Mom, mom! I found pumpkins." He threw himself into her arms. "Isn’t this place the greatest?"
Cody was the one constant in her life. Her reason for living. Elana couldn’t disappoint him, not when she saw such anticipation in his hazel eyes.
"Yes, hon, this place is awesome." And at that moment she knew she was going to make something of it, come hell or high water.
Elana awoke to the warm glow of brightness that filtered through the dust-grey windows of her room. Instead of peeling wallpaper, drab carpeting, and the sagging bed that Elana had given up in favour of her air-mattress on the floor, she saw the possibility of what the room could be. It was spacious with high ceilings and large windows. She pictured butter-yellow walls, oak furniture, a tawny spread, and a thick rug at her bedside in rich forest green, sienna, and umber. A room that would fill her with warmth even on the drizzliest mornings. She pulled her sleeping bag up to her chin and looked at Cody sleeping beside her, his arms flung out, his breathing deep. The morning was cold so she adjusted his sleeping bag, which had worked itself down to his waist. He muttered something unintelligible but did not wake.
After he’d found her in the greenhouse he had taken her to the pumpkin patch. The rampant vines were rambling through a clearing behind a large shed and intertwining among trees at the edge of the forest. The pumpkins ranged in size and shape, round, squat, oval, and showed a vivid orange against the green of the vines and weeds. Cody ran to a huge one and threw his arms around it. "Can I have this one to carve?"
At that moment an old man came around the side of the shed. "Who’s wanting my prize pumpkin?" he asked in a friendly voice. He wore a plaid shirt, faded jeans and gumboots. His grey hair was long and tied back in a ponytail; he had a scruffy beard on his face. He walked up to Elana and held out his hand. "You must be the new owner, come to inspect the place. I’m Sam Jardin."
"I am the owner," said Elana. "But I’m not here just to make an inspection; I’m here to live. I’m Elana Barnes and this is my son, Cody."
"You’re going to be living here?" asked Sam in surprise. "Collier said you were selling to Stewart."
"Mr Collier is wrong. He might want me to sell, but it’s nothing to do with him. He’s not involved in this place anymore. Are you his caretaker?" She put special emphasis on the word and looked back at the almost derelict greenhouses.
"Me? Work for him? He’s never hired anyone to tend to this place. He just took advantage of the fact that I decided to squat here and keep it from being vandalised further. I used to work here way back, when it belonged to old Bennet Thompson. About two years ago I came by and found out the old man had died and the place was in holding. I couldn’t believe the shambles it was in. There was a family living in the house that just threw their garbage out the back door. Teenagers would come and get drunk out by the greenhouses and then try to knock them down. I needed a place to live so I took over the old lunchroom back here." He waved his arm in the direction of the shed. "I just couldn’t stand to see everything that Bennet had worked all his life for destroyed. Now you’re here I guess I’ll have to be going. I hope your husband is prepared to do a lot of hard labour and has a chunk of money to sink into this place. It’s not going to be easy, but I’m glad you people are taking it on. I never wanted it to be up and sold only to be bulldozed by Darien Stewart and turned into paddocks."
"It’s only Cody and me here, Mr. Jardin. I don’t have a husband – this place is mine and I’ll be fixing it up on my own."
"Then you’ll need to hire a good crew. I could give you the name of someone who won’t cheat you."
"I don’t have a chunk of money. I’m pretty well flat broke. You see – I never expected anything like this. My dad has been paying maintenance for the last five years. The pictures we have show a well cared for operation. The house . . . the house . . ." Elana couldn’t go on. She knew if she did she would start to cry.
"The house ain’t as bad as it seems. Or the greenhouses, really. If you’ve got time and aren’t afraid of hard work you could do it by stages, get one greenhouse up and running, then two – you know?"
Elana warmed to the man. She knew nothing about him besides what he had told her, but for some reason she believed everything he had said. He cared about the place, and that was important. She needed someone to help her. He was old, but he looked strong. "Would you be willing to stay here and help me? I . . . I can’t pay you anything yet, but you’ll still have somewhere to live. I’ll give you a share of the profits – if there are profits."
"When there are profits. You got yourself a deal, little lady. Now let me show you around, and you can see what I have growing here." He turned to Cody. "Do you like gardening son? I could use a helper with my harvest. I promise you first choice of the pumpkins."
"Okay!" Cody jumped up and down. "Mom! The big pumpkin really is mine!"
Sam Jardin showed them raspberry canes and a small strawberry patch, both finished for the season, and a wild expanse of blackberry bushes heavy with sweet dark fruit. There were apple trees and pears. In the end of one greenhouse there were tomatoes flourishing. Carrots, cabbages and potatoes grew alongside the old lunchroom – Sam’s home. He invited them in and Elana noticed that though it was untidy, it was clean. The long wood table, still there from the lunchroom days, was up against one wall and served as a kitchen counter as well as an eating place. Shelves lined the wall above, and in the back was a huge, old wood cook-stove. Lanterns hung from the ceiling, and there was a bed against the other wall. Sam told Elana that there was a bathroom with a shower that had been there for the staff in the old days. "You don’t have to worry about me – I’m really cosy in here, even in the dead of winter," he said. "I’ve spent the better part of two years getting it just the way I like it."
Cody was very impressed and didn’t want to leave when he’d found a litter of kittens curled up in a box in one corner. He picked up a grey one and held it to his cheek. "Oh, mom – can I have one? I’ve never had a pet."
"We don’t know if Mr. Jardin is planning on giving them away," said Elana.
"If your mom says it’s okay, you can have whichever one you want, Cody, but they can’t leave their mother just yet. And call me Sam, both of you, please."
"Thank you, Sam. You can call me Elana, too." She went over to the box and looked at the kittens with Cody. "Which is your favourite, hon?"
"The grey one – can I have it?"
"Yes." She kissed his nose.
"I’ll call it Smeagol."
"No! Not after Gollum!" said Elana in mock horror.
"Look how cute he is, with such a big head and round eyes. Anyway, when Gollum was Smeagol he was nice."
"That’s true, and this guy looks like a real sweetie. Now let’s go see what else Sam has to show us."
They toured the greenhouses again while Sam explained what was growing in the beds now, and what had been grown in the past when it was a thriving venture. They ended up at the house where Sam showed how it was structurally very sound. All the damage was superficial: broken, boarded up windows, dangling shutters, collapsed front steps. "There had been people living here up until about four months ago, but Collier would never make any repairs. He had a hard time finding tenants to live in this squalor with the amount he was charging them."
Elana thanked Sam and he arranged to come by in the morning to help her make the house habitable. In the waning light she cleared a place in one bedroom for the air mattress and set up the bed. She only brought in their packs and left everything else in the car. After that she drove into town with Cody and they ordered a pizza. They parked by the estuary and ate it as the sky darkened over the still water.
Elana set the camp stove up on the kitchen counter and opened a window. Soon she had water boiling for tea, and eggs and bacon sizzling in the frying pan. She tried not to look at the grime and mess that surrounded her. The last tenants had just left whatever they didn’t want where it lay and a layer of thick dust had settled on everything. Elana made a list in her mind. Go into town and arrange to get the phone and power connected, buy cleaning supplies, drop in on that scum-bag Collier and give him a piece of her mind. She couldn’t afford to sue him for what he’d done but he would hear from her.
When Sam knocked on the back door, she hardly recognised him. He’d trimmed his hair and shaved his beard. She realised that he was younger than she’d thought the day before – closer to sixty than seventy.
"Hey, if I’m going to be working for you, I thought I should look a bit more respectable and less like the old hippie I am. Is Cody up for picking some tomatoes with me while you go into town?"
Elana looked at Cody and he nodded.
"Okay – he can stay with you – he’d only get bored while I do my business."
"Yeah! Can we see Smeagol before we work, Sam?"
"Of course you can. You can meet the mother, Twilight, now too. You have to be real quiet though because she’s a bit skittish."
Elana smiled as she watched them walk off between the greenhouses, then she closed the window and finished the dishes. An hour and a half later she had organised for the electricity to be connected later that day; the phone service couldn’t be hooked up for two more days. She had loaded up with brooms, mops, garbage bags, and assorted environmentally friendly cleaning products. She parked outside of Bob Collier’s realty office and took a big breath. She checked her reflection in the mirror and ran a brush through her hair. She hated confrontations, but Collier just couldn’t get away with taking advantage of people like that. She entered the office and was asked to take a seat until Mr. Collier was free. She picked up a magazine and absently started leafing through it, but all the time she kept going over and over in her mind everything that she planned to say to him.
The bell over the door rang again as two men entered the office. Elana heard them ask for Bob Collier and she looked up. There was no way the receptionist was going to let them in to see him first. Elana didn’t miss the tone in the woman’s voice. It was almost reverent.
"Mr. Stewart, how are you? Good morning, Mr. Bingham. Mr Collier won’t be a moment. Would you like a coffee while you are waiting?"
The taller of the two just looked at the deferential young woman and nodded, but the other smiled cheerfully and accepted coffee for both of them. When the receptionist left the room to prepare their drinks, the taller one said. "Let’s get this over with as soon as possible, Carl. Collier has wasted too much of my time. Now he’s feeding us this outrageous story about the owner turning up and wanting to get the business operational. He’ll say anything to try and get me to raise my offer. It’s intolerable the way the guy runs his business. Do we really have to deal with him?"
Elana stiffened. What were they talking about?
"He’s the most underhanded realtor I know," replied Carl, "but he’s represented this guy for five years. I don’t think the owner has a clue what the land is worth. Your offer is more than generous."
"I know that! Whoever he is should just take the money and run. I don’t know what Collier’s game is – he lets the place go to ruin and is still hanging out for more money. The owner’s got to be just as unscrupulous as Bob is to allow such neglect, but I tell you, Carl, I’m just plain sick of living beside a garbage dump, with welfare bums for neighbours. I’d really pay anything to get rid of that eyesore."
As Elana listened her anger grew. It was more than obvious that this was the illustrious Darien Stewart who had been trying to buy her place as long as her father owned it. How dare he think she was just like that slime-ball Collier?
"Maybe the owner is going to develop it now."
"That place? The only thing to do with it is set a match to it! It’s a verminous blight on the landscape. Only a fool would attempt to restore it."
"Well, I guess that makes me a fool then!" Both men turned around to see Elana standing there, her eyes blazing. The receptionist returned at that moment and almost dropped the coffee. "I’m the owner of the greenhouses and your new neighbour, Mr Stewart. You’ll be happy to know that you don’t have to deal with the unscrupulous Mr. Collier any more. He doesn’t work for me. If you have any further offers to make on my place, you have to deal directly with me, and I’ll tell you once and for all, I’m not selling."
She looked over to see Bob Collier standing in the open doorway of his office. Turning to the receptionist she said, "It appears that Mr. Collier is ready to see me now, so I’ll go right in." She turned her back on the men who were still standing as if frozen and walked past Bob Collier and into his office. He was left with no other choice but to close the door and address her.
"Ms Barnes – you can’t mean what you said to Mr. Stewart. I can straighten the whole thing out with him right now. You don’t want to be on his bad side. He is very influential. I’m sure if I speak nicely to him and apologise for your outburst we can enter back into negotiations. I’ve been working on him for years – he’s practically eating out of my hand. You’ll get more from Stewart than anyone else."
"Have I not made myself clear, Bob? You do not work for me. You are lucky I’m not suing the pants off you. Stewart thinks you are unscrupulous, but you are much worse than that. You are a lying, thieving bottom-feeder. You cheated my father for five years, charging him for caretaking and maintenance that was never performed. You never even bothered to find decent tenants. Is this your normal modus operandi? I am amazed that you have any clients at all. I’m willing to tell anyone who is interested that you can be trusted only to cheat them."
Outside the office, Carl Bingham apologetically declined the coffees. The receptionist didn’t seem to notice. Every word Elana spoke came clearly through the thin walls. Darien Stewart had to grudgingly admire her directness. She was a fool, to be sure, to take on such a losing venture, but she had spunk. He still wanted her derelict greenhouses gone and he wasn’t about to let a little thing like her adamant, I’m not selling get in his way. She didn’t know whom she was taking on. After listening to most of her tirade, he tapped Carl on the arm and they left the office. However, it was a long time before the image of her fiery eyes left him.
Elana swept past the receptionist without a glance in her direction and so missed the look of admiration on that woman’s face. When she got to her car she was shaking. She opened the door and climbed in before she was overwhelmed. Leaning on her steering wheel, she gasped for breath as her head spun. What had she just done? She had never stood up to anyone that way before. She didn’t regret a word that she had said, not after the way that arrogant Darien Stewart had belittled her and her decision to rebuild her business. If it was the last thing she did, she was going to prove to him that she was not a fool. She was going to build it up to be a viable venture and there was nothing he could do to prevent her, no matter how influential he was.
The image of Bob Collier’s astonished face rose up before her and she suddenly began to laugh. After she had done yelling at him he had almost grovelled at her feet, begging her to re-hire him, coming up with all sorts of pathetic excuses for why the greenhouses and house had become neglected: illness, incompetent employees, untrustworthy tenants. He even insisted that Sam Jardin was his employee, but he had not been doing his job and was really the one who had cheated them both. Elana didn’t buy a word of it. She told him she never wanted anything to do with him again As she walked out of his office he had begged her not to go to one of his competitors, and especially not to deal with Carl Bingham. The guy would only cheat her. That was a laugh! As if she already hadn’t been cheated.
She wiped her streaming eyes, not sure if the tears were primarily from her fury or her laughter. She strapped herself in and put her car in gear. After a quick stop at Subway for two footlongs, she drove back along Headquarters road and turned up the now familiar Haven Road. She drove slowly by Stewart Stables this time, giving it a much deeper appraisal than she had on the other few times she had driven past. Everything she could see looked picture perfect: neat white fences, trim barns, sleek horses grazing in the fields, and way at the back of the property, hidden by outbuildings and trees, the shingled gables of what had to be a house of mansion proportions. For a moment she was struck with the incongruity of the two properties being side by side and fleetingly wondered how she would feel about the decrepit greenhouses if she owned this paradise. But then she saw someone walk out across a field and lean against a fence, calling to one of the horses. He was tall and lithe, and from the way he held himself she was certain it was Darien Stewart. All thoughts of sympathy left her. She remembered his harsh words and she felt a tight knot harden in the pit of her stomach.
Cody came running out to meet Elana when she returned. Her anger had not yet completely dissipated, especially not after having been resurrected by the sight of her offensive neighbour, but she put it aside and greeted Cody with enthusiasm equal to his own. He chatted merrily as he helped unload all the cleaning supplies. Sam came up too and told her he was going to ride his bike down the road a bit to get a friend who owned a truck. They had both eaten a snack while she was out so Elana put the subs in the cooler.
"Hey mom, what’s this?" asked Cody as he was unloading the shopping bags.
"A disposable camera. I’m going to take pictures of everything so when we get it all fixed up we’ll never forget how terrible it looked when we started. Then we’ll take new pictures and we’ll have a before and after record."
"Can I take some pictures?"
"Sure – I’ll show you what I want and help you get the angle and you shoot. We’ll start with an outside shot, do the house, and then go out back."
As depressing as the subject matter was, Elana had fun sharing the task with her eager young son. He came up with some good ideas for shots and even managed to talk Elana into sitting in the pumpkin patch for a picture with his favourite pumpkin. She returned the favour.
After that was done they got straight to work filling garbage bags. Starting in the filthy living room, they planned to work their way through the whole house. It was easy – everything had to go. Elana couldn’t be bothered to sort for recyclables; she just wanted the whole mess cleared out. She threw all the restless energy from her pent-up anger into the job and set a brisk pace that Cody didn’t even attempt to match.
After about an hour, Sam returned with his friend Dennis who had a beat up old pick-up and a smile a mile wide. It seemed there was nothing he would rather be doing than loading his truck up with garbage and driving out to the dump.
"It’ll be great to see this place cleaned up," he said, when Elana offered to pay him for his trouble. "All I need is the dump fees."
"Well, you’re not going to stop me from feeding you," she countered.
They took a break for lunch. Elana had never seen subs disappear so fast but there were also apples that Sam had picked and a big jug of juice from the store. They wasted no time chatting but went straight back to work and soon filled the back of the pick-up with broken furniture and heaps of green plastic bags. When the men drove off to dump the first load, the technician from the electrical company came by and checked that all the wires to the house were in working order. When he was done and lights could be turned on Elana felt elated and surprised that such a simple thing could give her a feeling of accomplishment. She spent the next two hours attacking the stove while garbage was stowed into bags all around her. When it was finally clean she had to admit that it didn’t look too bad – it was hers and it worked and she’d be cooking supper in her own house that night.
The refrigerator was a different story. It was grimy, rusty, and mercifully dead. Sam took the door off and together with Dennis threw it in the back of the truck. When they set off for their next dump-run, Elana drove with Cody back to Super Store and bought all the fixings for chili and fresh ice for their cooler. She was unloading all the groceries on the newly cleaned counter when she had a flash realisation.
"I don’t have any big cooking pots!" All her bravado suddenly left her and she lay her head in amongst the beans and bread and peppers and onions. Her shoulders shook as tears filled her eyes.
Cody came up and put his arms around her. "Don’t worry mom – you can borrow some from Sam."
She hugged him back. "Silly me. Sorry for crying, kiddo – it’s just been one crazy day for me."
"That’s okay mom. Even I cry sometimes."
She kissed him on the forehead. "Even you?" She laughed softly. "Let’s get back to work, hon. I’ll start cutting the veggies and when Sam gets back you can run down to his place with him and find me some pots."
"And have a visit with Smeagol too?"
"That’s why I suggested it. You’ve more than earned a visit with your kitty."
They ate their chili picnic-style on a blanket on the living room floor. It was quite late, but the house was empty and three of the rooms were relatively clean. There was not a stick of furniture. They only had what they brought with them, their camping supplies, clothing, Cody’s favourite toys, and Elana’s books.
"There’s a Sally Anne in Courtney where you can pick up some kitchen stuff cheap," said Dennis. "And I’ll keep a look out for a fridge for you."
"Salvation Army thrift store," said Sam. "It’s your best bet."
"You gonna be needing to rent a carpet cleaner?" asked Dennis.
"No," said Elana. "I’m ripping all the carpet out – it’s too disgusting to consider cleaning."
"How about we do it tomorrow?" asked Sam.
"Thanks, guys. That’s really nice of you to offer, but I think I’ll leave it till I finish painting then we won’t need any drop-sheets."
"Good idea – I’m thinking you’ve got hardwood under here." Sam rubbed the carpet.
Elana’s eyes brightened. "Hardwood! I would love hardwood floors."
"Probably need resurfacing, mind you."
"I don’t care. Sam – in a week you won’t recognise this place."
"I don’t recognise it already." He got up from the floor and took his bowl to the counter. "Dennis and I’ll do the dishes."
"No, please. You’ve both done enough. Cody and I can handle it."
"I think Cody’s ready to drop," said Dennis. "You put him to bed and we’ll tidy this all up."
Elana picked up her son and carried him to the bedroom where the air-mattress and sleeping bags were laid out once more. Gone was the sagging bed. Instead the wall was lined with boxes of their clothes and the two backpacks. Elana decided not to worry about washing up tonight – she simply tucked Cody into his sleeping bag and kissed his cheek.
"You were a great help today, hon," she whispered.
He put his arms around her neck and she lay beside him until his breathing relaxed and he loosened his grip. She gave him another kiss and reluctantly got up from the comfortable bed, turned off the light, and then returned to the kitchen to thank the men and say goodnight.
After breakfast Elana went straight to scrubbing the walls but insisted that Cody get out his Lego and play for a bit. Banging started up outside. Elana opened the front door and saw Sam and Dennis taking apart the porch steps.
"We found some lumber in the back to build you some new ones," said Sam. "When that’s done I’ll fix up the shutters and measure the broken windows for glass."
"You don’t need to do all this work on the house," said Elana. "It’s only the greenhouses you’re supposed to be helping out with."
"First things first," said Sam. "We’re gonna clean up the front yard too. Everything that can’t be burned we’ll take to the dump. I’m thinking that before the end of the day we’ll have a rare bonfire going out back!"
"Can we roast marshmallows?" asked Cody who had followed Elana out onto the porch.
"Not on a scrap fire – it’ll be too big and the smoke won’t be nice. If your mom says it’s okay we can build you a small fire with some good wood."
"Can we Mom?" Cody turned to her and gave her his best puppy dog face.
She gave him a hug. "We’ll see. I’ve got to get back to work now."
"That means yes," Cody said to Sam in a loud whisper.
After lunch Elana decided that both she and Cody needed a change of pace and some fresh air. They drove out to the estuary where they’d eaten their pizza the first night. Elana remembered seeing a paved walk along the riverside. She parked near a small airstrip and they walked together in the quiet stillness of the afternoon.
The water was smooth and reflected the blue of the sky. From a wooden bridge they watched ducks swim between the sturdy pylons. The riverbank was thick with rushes. Small birds flitted from cattail to stump and in and out of the branches of rangy shrubs. Elana just leant on the railing and gazed about as a mellow peacefulness settled upon her. She looked further out and saw the river widen to embrace the broad stretch of ocean that filled the horizon. Cody busied himself with dropping twigs over the bridge and then running to the other side to watch them drift out from under the bridge and away.
All the furious activity of cleaning, all the frustration and anger she had dealt with in the last two days, all the endless cross country driving of the week before – the burden of it all fell away; slipped from her shoulders as she let the silken ripple of the water, the soft rustle of the grasses, the somnolent resonance of the muted birdsong carry her away to a place beyond thought. Where nothing needed a reason and existence was all that mattered. A frog plopped – the ripples expanded outward, minnows scattered among the submerged rocks.
Sudden, shrill barking shattered the stillness.
"Toto! Quiet! Sorry, he’s really very friendly – for some reason he just thinks he owns this bridge."
Elana looked up to see a pretty girl of about her age holding back a black and white Jack Russell who was straining against his leash. Cody stopped what he was doing and walked forward, his hand held out. "Could I pet him?"
"Oh yes, he’s perfectly safe."
"Mom! Look, he’s licking my hand."
Elana went over to see the little dog too and soon was talking with his owner while Cody ran up and down with Toto at the end of the leash.
"You’ve got a cute little dog," said Elana.
"He’s not mine. He belongs to my aunt but I like to bring him here. It’s my favourite walk – I walk along the estuary and feel like I’m back home again walking along the Serpentine Fen, even though it’s really not the same at all."
"You’re not from here?"
"I am now. I’ve lived here a month."
"We’ve just moved as well, from Kingston – from Halifax, really."
"Wow – that’s a long way to come – did you get transferred or something?"
"I actually inherited a greenhouse business, but it’s not operational yet and needs a lot of work. My name is Elana, by the way." She held out her hand. All the while they had been strolling along behind Cody and the dog.
"I’m Joy," said the girl, smiling. "I’m happy to meet you. I don’t know anybody here yet, besides my aunt and her family. I work at Super Store."
"So, you live with your aunt?"
"Yes, but I’d really like to find my own place – out of town, if I can, only I’m trying to save as much as possible and renting a house on property is expensive."
Elana stopped, looked at Joy, and then made a snap decision. "Would you consider sharing a house?" It was completely unplanned but it suddenly seemed like the most obvious decision. Her house was way too large for only Cody and herself, used as they were to living in tiny basement suites.
"Do you mean that? But you’ve only just met me and know nothing about me."
"You’ve only just met us too. But I do have to warn you that right now the place is a real dump. Why don’t you come over tonight and see for yourself before you decide?"
"I’d like that."
"My phone’s not hooked up yet, but I can give you the address. How’s seven?"
"That would be great," said Joy.
Cody came running back with the dog and after a little more talk and some quick goodbyes Joy continued her walk while he and Elana went back to the car to search out a paint store. It didn’t take long to find a Cloverdale Paint outlet, but Elana nearly choked when she discovered that one can of paint the buttery colour she envisioned would cost her thirty-five dollars. A sales girl came up and asked if she could help.
"Do you have anything cheaper than this? I have a whole house to paint, inside and out, and my budget won’t stand this price."
"Well, there’re two ways you can go," she answered. "You can buy five gallon buckets of cheap paint in a neutral colour, like the builders use, or you can go for mistints."
"People order a colour and then it doesn’t turn out quite the way they expected it to, so we sell those premixed colours off for eight dollars a gallon. Here, I’ll show you where they are." She motioned for them to follow her and then looked at the colour card in Elana’s hand. "Is that the colour you were looking for?"
"I just got something very similar to that returned by a client yesterday – let’s see if it hasn’t been sold yet."
Not only were there two cans of a beautiful butter-yellow, but Elana also found three cans of ochre, two of ivory and one of cobalt blue. Cody picked a can of forest green that he insisted was exactly what he wanted for his own room. After loading up on rollers, brushes, and paint trays, they turned the car around and headed for home, Elana full of anticipation at the thought of covering the existing faded, pea-green of the walls.
Darien let his eyes stray towards the road as the sound of a now familiar engine met his ears. The rusty Volvo had been up and down the road quite often in the last two days. He shook his head. The girl was really going ahead with it! He’d seen that handyman’s beater of a truck taking away load after load of garbage. She was fighting a losing battle and he imagined that after a lot of wasted effort she’d have to concede. What she really needed to bring in was one big bulldozer, and raze the lot. From where he was he could barely see the occupants of the car, but it looked as if she wasn’t alone, not that he really cared. He wasn’t interested in anything about her. He just wanted her gone and the place cleaned out, so the sooner she came to her senses and sold, the better. He lifted a saddle from the fence railing, threw it over his shoulder, and headed for the tack room.
The house looked so much better just to have the stairs and shutters repaired and the boards gone from the windows. Sam and Dennis had done an amazing amount of work – the front yard was almost clear of junk as well. Elana walked into the living room and imagined it a rich ochre. The colour would be perfect. Her heart sank at how dismal it really looked, with the stained carpet and marked-up walls. Joy would take one look and run! If she’d had any sense, she’d have asked her to come in a week, when the painting was done. There was no helping it now, though. She sighed, wondering why she’d been so impetuous, and put the paint cans she was carrying down.
"Which room will Joy get?" asked Cody.
"I doubt she’ll take any."
"I hope she does. I like her – will she bring Toto?"
"He belongs to her aunt."
"Oh well – he’d probably scare Smeagol anyway – he’s pretty bouncy."
"Very high-spirited," agreed Elana.
"Do you know which room I want, mom?"
"Which one do you want, hon?" asked Elana, smiling down at his eager face.
"The little cute one connected to yours."
"But . . . that’s just a walk-in closet."
Cody put his arms around her. "The other two are too big, and they’re all the way over on the other side of the house."
"Then it’s yours, sweetie. I don’t need a walk-in closet anyway. I’ve always wanted a wardrobe."
"Like in the book?"
"With fur coats?"
"Sorry, no fur coats to get lost in on your way to Narnia."
"Rats! Hey, mom – do we still have marshmallows?"
"Half a bag."
"Can we go out and see if they’ve got the bonfire going?"
"Let’s do that – I don’t feel like working any more today."
As they passed through the kitchen and out the back door Cody grabbed the bag of marshmallows from the cupboard. It wasn’t hard to find the bonfire. It was way back, in a clearing behind the greenhouses. The smell of smoke and the crackling of burning timber led them there. Sam was standing to one side with a hose at the ready, in case the fire should get out of control, though from what Elana could see there was no danger of that. He hailed them and then, at Cody’s pleading, went about building a small fire a bit further away from the blazing heap so that Cody could have his marshmallow roast. As Elana watched the two of them together a small smile slowly grew and spread across her face.
Darien smelled smoke. Children were having lessons in the south ring and he worried that the smoke would make the horses restless. It was coming from that place. Who knew what kind of garbage they were burning, polluting the air. He hurried over, watching as a light breeze carried the smoke through the trees in uneven eddies, first high and then low. Two of the children were coughing and a horse pawed the ground nervously. His anger flared and he brushed his way through the woods, not noticing the branches snapping back against him. At the fence he did not pause but hurdled over, and pushed through even denser bush. He came out onto a clearing and a huge pile of wildly burning junk. She was standing a few feet from the blaze, the fire casting a warm glow on her face. It was as if he’d never seen her before. Her hair was hanging down her back in a dark tangle and the smile on her face was one of delight. He hadn’t realised that she was actually pretty. It was a passing thought and he didn’t let it affect his actions.
"Did you get a permit for this?" he yelled at her.
The smile disappeared. Her face immediately became tense. "Do I need one?"
"There’ve been restrictions because of the forest fires! It’s bloody well dangerous – and your fire’s practically raging out of control."
"No it’s not. I’ve got a hose going here and the whole area has been sprayed a few times. Anyway – what forest fires are you talking about?"
"There’ve been forest fires all over B.C. throughout August – how could you not know that?"
"Here? On the Island?"
"No, but what difference does that make?" He lunged towards her. "If you’re not going to put it out at least give me that hose and I’ll do it. I’ve got riding lessons going on just through those trees. The smoke from your stupid fire is spooking my horses."
"So that’s what this is all about!" Her embarrassment caused her anger to flare. "Sam wouldn’t have started this fire if there were really burning restrictions. Put my hose down."
"That burned out hippie doesn’t know what’s going on in the next block! If you’re not going to listen to reason, I’ve got no other option," he yelled, training the hose on the fire.
"Stop that! Get off my property!"
The noise brought both Sam and Cody running. They arrived in time to see Elana wrest the hose from Darien’s grasp, only to have it twist and turn and drench them both. Sam ran over and picked it up.
"What’s the problem, Mr Stewart?"
"You should know about the fire restrictions, Jardin!" Darien wiped the water from his face. The blue denim shirt he was wearing clung to his chest.
"Oh my God, I forgot all about that! I’ll put it out right away, Mr Stewart."
"I’m glad someone around here has finally found some sense," said Darien in a hard, tight voice. "I won’t report you, but get it out right now!" Without another look in Elana’s direction he strode off through the trees.
"Boy, that man was really mad."
Darien heard the child’s voice echo from behind as branches snapped in his face. Damned right he was mad! And now he was soaked too, all because of that . . . he suddenly remembered the look of shock on her face as the water struck her, and he laughed. What a farcical situation! If it weren’t so serious it would really have been funny. He hopped the fence again and then made a wide detour around the riding ring and jogged straight up to the house. He managed to get in and change without anyone seeing him, so he didn’t have to explain his wet clothing.
As Elana cooked supper, the fiasco at the fire kept replaying in her mind. Stewart had been so arrogant, so obnoxious . . . so right. It made her angrier knowing that she’d been wrong. That she shouldn’t have had a fire. She didn’t even think to blame Sam; it was her property, her responsibility. And then to top it all off the stupid hose had doused her right in front of the jerk. Her t-shirt had become all but transparent. It was his fault for coming after her so out of control rather than talk to her like a sane person – just her luck to get a head-case for a neighbour. An image of him with his curls dripping came to her mind unbidden and was ejected just as fast. She wasn’t going to let the way he looked have any influence over her feelings. Just because a guy was gorgeous had nothing to do with his character. She’d learned that the hard way and wouldn’t make that same mistake again.
Elana looked about herself in disgust. How was it possible to make a place look good when there was no furniture to hide the stains on the carpets and the nicks on the walls? She’d washed the supper dishes and put them away, and made sure the sleeping bags were smoothed tidily on the air-mattress – there was nothing more she could really do. It had been a nice idea to rent out a room in her house, but she’d make sure it was painted and furnished before she invited anyone else to come and see it. Upon hearing the knock she sighed and walked over to open the door.
"Hi!" Joy smiled brightly as she walked in and began to slip off her shoes.
"Don’t worry about your shoes – this carpet is going as soon as the painting is done."
"The drive here was great. I can’t believe it – this place is only five minutes from my work but it’s like I’m right out in the country. That property next door to you is so beautiful."
"Well, mine isn’t in quite the same shape."
"You have some lovely hemlocks up by the road, and there’s a wonderful beech tree in the flowerbed in front of the house."
"There’s a flowerbed in front of the house?" asked Elana in amazement.
"You can see there was at one time, and in the spring we can plant it with lavender and . . . oops, sorry. Here I am already planning your garden for you and I don’t even know if you really want me to move in yet." Joy giggled.
"Ever since I got home I’ve been stressing that you’d take one look at this place and run!"
"Why? It’s lovely out here. And look at this room! It’s so large and airy. My aunt lives in a new, low-cost condo. The rooms are all tiny, and none of the ceilings are this high." Joy looked at the stack of paint cans. "What colour did you get to paint it?"
Elana tipped the can to show her the ochre tone painted on the lid.
"Perfect! Where’s Cody?"
"He went down to Sam’s place to have a last look at his kitten before bedtime. He should be right back. Would you like to see the rest of the house?"
Cody joined them on the back porch after they’d finished touring all the rooms. Joy asked him about Smeagol and then Elana pointed out the greenhouses.
"You’ve got a lot of work to do," said Joy, "but you know, it will be fantastic once you get it fixed up. The location is amazing. Just look at your view of Mount Arrowsmith across the way there."
The sun was nearly set, but a fine line of fire spread across the deepening blue, casting a rosy tint to the traces of snow that still clung to the highest peaks.
Elana let her eyes linger on the sight for a few moments and then turned to Joy. "This is the first time I even noticed the mountains. I’ve been too overwhelmed by the mess."
They returned into the house while Cody barraged Joy with questions about which room she wanted.
"Your mom has to decide if she wants me to live here with you guys first."
"Of course she wants you, right mom?"
"I’d love it if you really think you want to, Joy," said Elana.
"I’ve been trying to tell you that since the moment I arrived," said Joy, grinning at them both.
"So, let’s choose your room then," said Cody, grabbing her hand and pulling her forward.
"I’m just going to put on some tea," said Elana. "Or would you prefer coffee?"
"Tea would be lovely," said Joy as she let Cody lead her to the bedrooms.
"Do you like herbal?"
"Sure," said Joy as she was dragged through the doorway. A few minutes later they were back in the kitchen and Elana was pouring tea into mugs.
"I hope you’ll excuse our camping gear. I haven’t bought anything yet. Would you like to sit down?" she said, indicating the counter.
"No, I’m fine," said Joy as she leaned against it.
"I convinced her to take the big room in the front of the house," said Cody as he got some juice from the cooler.
"When I found out it has a view of the beech tree I was sold," said Joy. "Plus it’s got lots of room for my loom."
"Yes, but there’s been nowhere to set up my loom at my aunt’s so this is great. I’ll be able to get a booth in the Christmas craft market!"
They sat and drank their tea while they chatted about Joy’s aspirations. She was saving all her money to someday open a craft store where she could sell her and other artisans’ work. Elana sensed there was even more to Joy’s story than she had disclosed but that would come with time, when they got to know each other better. She herself had let little out about her past as well. It was almost ten when Joy finally left, promising to come by the next day when she got off shift so that she could help with the painting.
The week was a busy one. Elana painted from morning till night with Joy and Cody assisting when they were able. Joy had chosen the cobalt blue for her bedroom, with ivory trim. For the kitchen they’d mixed some of the yellow from Elana’s bedroom with the ivory and painted it a rich cream. They’d had to buy more paint for the bathrooms, which ended up a dusty brick colour. Elana had been sceptical, but she had to admit that Joy had an unerring colour sense. For the smaller bedroom they had fun mixing what was left from a number of different cans and ended up with a colour like creamy coffee.
Elana encouraged Cody to get out and play as much as he could, or help Sam around the greenhouses. Dennis came by with a fridge that he’d found in the Buy and Sell, and tinkered around in the laundry room trying to get the washer and dryer working. By Friday, the walls were all done, and the painted baseboards lay in the middle of the living room floor, waiting for the carpet to be taken up so that they could be reinstalled. Furniture was the order of the day, so while Sam and Dennis were left with the unenviable task of ridding the house of carpet, Elana and Cody hopped into the car to cruise the second hand stores and antique shops of Courtney.
"We’d better run by the school and register you too," said Elana as they drove down their rutted driveway. "You’ve missed two weeks of school already. Your holiday is over, bud."
"Holiday? I’ve been working like crazy. Do I really have to go to school?"
"Of course." Elana looked over at Cody and saw how pinched his face was. "Is something bothering you?"
"I don’t know anyone."
"And that’s one other reason you need to go to school. Don’t worry – you’ll make friends quickly. And the school sounds great. It’s called Miracle Beach."
Cody’s expression brightened a bit. "I won’t have to start today, will I?"
"Of course not. We’ll just go and register and maybe you’ll get a tour and meet the teacher."
"Good, because I want to choose the furniture with you."
"And so you shall, honey. I hope you won’t get bored, though. I’m going to be dragging you through tons of stores." She reached out her hand and ruffled up his hair. Cody smiled.
The visit to the school went very well. There was a school bus that could pick Cody up at the corner of Headquarters road, but Elana decided to drive him for at least the first month until he was settled in. The shopping trip was very tiring. By one o’clock they had found little more than dishes and cutlery, pots and pans. The furniture in the thrift stores was all shoddy; in the antique stores it was overpriced. They took a break for lunch in an old diner chosen for it’s proximity to the shops and not it’s ambience. Though it looked tacky inside and out, the food was surprisingly good and the service was excellent. Their waitress was very friendly and seemed to take a liking to Cody, ensuring that he got a very big piece of apple pie.
"This pie’s home made, kid. You can’t stand it, it’s so good. Just like your Aunt Betsy made it, or something."
"I don’t have an Aunt Betsy," said Cody, giggling.
"Well, you’ll wish you did it tastes so good."
She winked at him and sauntered off. Cody took a huge forkful and then continued to eat without speaking, relishing every crumb.
"I think I’m going to have to break down and buy some new furniture," said Elana. "I really wanted to use most of the money grandpa gave me for the business, but I don’t want to bring junk into the house when all I’ve done for over a week is get rid of it. Just a little bit of furniture to start off with, what do you think? And soon we’ll have money from Joy’s rent and if we find someone to take the other bedroom we should do okay."
The waitress was walking past with a load of dishes up her arms and stopped by their table for a moment as she waited for someone to walk around her.
"Sure mom," said Cody, eyeing the pie she’d barely tasted. "And you’ll be growing plants in the greenhouses too."
"That’ll take time, sweetie."
"There’s already things growing. We could sell pumpkins, and apples and . . . stuff."
Elana pulled out a pad and a pencil and began writing down figures. Cody looked up and saw the waitress coming back from serving her other customers.
"You done with that sugar?" she asked. "Now wasn’t that the best pie you ever tasted?"
She looked at Elana and said, "Mind if I join you for a minute?"
"Not at all," said Elana, scooting over in the booth.
"Name’s Chandra," she said, holding her hand out.
"I’m Elana, and this is my son, Cody."
"I couldn’t help but overhearing," said Chandra. "You have a room for rent?"
"Yes, we live out on Haven Road, and I have a room available. It’s three hundred dollars a month, the bathroom would be shared with another girl, and full kitchen, living room, and laundry room privileges."
"You see, I’m really stuck. Everything’s going sideways. I was sharing this apartment with a girl I know and now she’s got a boyfriend who . . ." She looked over at Cody. "Let’s just say I need to find a new place fast. Can’t live with them. Is it available right away?"
"Well . . ." Elana hesitated.
"Oh, yeah, I understand. Look, I’m dependable. I’ve got a steady job and no bad habits, unless you count chocolate. And I know how to bake pie!"
"Did you make this pie?" Cody looked up at her in awe.
"You betcha, kiddo!"
"I’ve got my own furniture," Chandra said persuasively.
"You’d need a car, we’re out of town a ways."
"I know Haven Road. That’s where Stewart Stables is. Anyway, I’ve got a bike."
Elana’s face hardened at the mention of the stables. "We’re right next door."
"The old greenhouse place? Excellent! ‘Bout time somebody fixed that place up. I remember when old Mr. Thompson owned it. I used to go there all the time and buy bedding plants for my mom’s garden."
"Would you like to come by and see the room?" asked Elana.
She looked so eager that Elana had to agree.
"I gotta get back to work now – the boss is giving me the evil eye. I’ve got a course up at North Island from six until eight, so how about I come after that?"
"That would be fine. What are you taking?"
"Philosophy of art."
"Hits everybody that way," Chandra laughed. "It was either that or Sociology 220. Nothing else that I hadn’t taken fit into my schedule." She took Cody’s empty plate and hurried off to the kitchen.
"She’s nice," said Cody.
"You know something," said Elana, "I think you’re right. Now let’s get going and buy us some furniture."
"Aren’t you going to finish your pie?"
"You bet I am." Elana began eating and then took pity on him. She pushed the plate across the table. "We can share."
Chandra turned up in the evening on a motorbike. She confided to Cody that if she’d been asked what colour she wanted the room painted she’d have chosen just that shade. She was thrilled with the hardwood floors, said she’d get her own phone line so she could have an internet hook-up, and she handed Elana one month’s rent and a damage deposit stating that she’d track down a friend with a truck and move in on Sunday.
The weekend was busy. Dennis helped Joy move in on Saturday. The truck from the furniture store delivered Elana’s new couch and armchair, a round oak table and chairs for the kitchen, and Cody’s Captain’s bed. Elana was not going to compromise on her bedroom furniture. She was content to sleep on the air-mattress until she found the bed and dresser she had envisioned when she had woken on her first morning in the house. Carpet, curtains and the rest could all come later. Right now they had what they needed, and gazing around her living room she had to admit that the comfy, overstuffed furniture exactly suited the room. Joy had donated a little end table, a lamp, and a wall hanging for over the brick fireplace. A bookshelf for Elana’s books and a small rug in the centre of the room and it would be complete for the time being.
On Sunday Chandra arrived. Her furniture was put away quickly and a simple oak coffee table found its way into the living room, along with an emerald green glass vase filled with yellow and white freesias that soon sweetened the house with their fragrance. The three women got together in Joy’s room and helped set up her loom. Elana quickly learned about heddles and reeds, lams and beams, and soon an imposing 45" floor loom was taking up quite a major portion of the bedroom, while Joy was crawling about underneath, connecting the harnesses to the treadles. There was an unexpected knock upon the door and Elana left the room to see whom it could be.
She was very surprised to find a gentleman in a suit standing on her front porch. He held out his hand and smiled, and at that same moment she recognised him.
"Carl Bingham," he said. "We didn’t really meet properly, but you were in Collier’s office the other day when I was there with Darien Stewart."
"Of course I remember," said Elana, taking his hand. Carl made an apologetic grimace, and she continued. "Elana Barnes."
"It wasn’t the best of circumstances," he said.
"No," said Elana. "I was not altogether pleased that day."
"In other words you gave both Darien and Bob a well-deserved piece of your mind," said Carl with a grin.
Elana could not help but grin back.
"I suppose you’re wondering what I’m doing here."
"Well, I can’t really think of any reason . . ."
"I just wanted to start over and apologise to you for that day, and welcome you to the neighbourhood."
"I don’t think you have anything to apologise for," said Elana. "Won’t you come in, Mr Bingham?"
"Carl - call me Carl. Please."
"All right, Carl, won’t you come in?"
He laughed and wiped his feet.
"Don’t take off your shoes. There’ve been people in and out of here all day long – it needs sweeping desperately."
Carl almost stopped still in the doorway. He let out a low whistle. "I’m stunned," he said. "I was led to believe that this house ought to be condemned. This room is . . . charming."
Elana looked about the room and decided that it was the man who was charming. The room certainly looked a lot better than it had, but it was commonplace compared with what he was certainly used to.
"And the outside, too. What an improvement. I’m impressed, Ms Barnes."
"We can’t have me calling you Carl and you calling me Ms Barnes."
"Elana – you’ve really done something with this house, and in such a short time, too."
"I’ve had a lot of help."
He shuffled from one foot to the other. "You know, Darien is very sincere in his offer on this place. I don’t know if Collier explained anything to you about it, but his bid is actually above current market value."
"I was wondering when it would get to this," said Elana. "Carl, you seem to be a very nice man, but I don’t have any connection to that jerk Collier and whatever your friend Mr. Stewart wants to say to me, he can tell me himself."
"Actually, I represent Darien in all his real estate dealings," said Carl apologetically.
"He was with you at Collier’s office," said Elana.
"So you know why I don’t bring him along too often," said Carl.
Despite herself, Elana laughed.
"Look, I’m not here to strong-arm you. I just want you to understand that the offer is still on the table. If you should find all this," here Carl drew his arm in a wide circle, "too difficult; if you should come to realise that it’s not what you want to do after all, well – you have an option. A very generous one."
"I appreciate what you’re telling me," said Elana, "but I’m not desperate yet. I intend to stick it out. I’m very confident that I can make a go of this business."
"You strike me as someone with a lot of determination," said Carl. "But businesses can run into any number of unforeseen difficulties. Please keep the offer in mind." He reached in his pocket and brought out a business card. He was about to hand it to Elana when the other two women came out of the bedroom; Joy was laughing at something Chandra had said. His hand stopped midway and the card fell from his fingers.
Joy stilled in the doorway, colour rising in her cheeks. Chandra continued forward.
"I’m sorry," she said. "We didn’t know you had company."
Elana made quick introductions. Chandra walked forward and shook Carl’s hand. He greeted her absently.
"Would you like some tea?" asked Joy in a rather breathless voice.
"Yes, please, I would like that," said Carl and he sat down in the armchair.
Elana bent over and picked the business card up, placing it on the mantle.
"So, Carl," said Chandra. "I didn’t think Elana knew too many people around here. Tell me how you guys met."
Carl rather disjointedly mentioned meeting Elana in a realty office, all the time his eyes never straying from the kitchen door.
Light fell through the branches. Formless. Evanescent as it slipped in to join the darkness. She was beyond its touch – and, if so, beyond the sight of the group of Thregols that walked stealthily by on the path above. She could see their feet from her hiding place. The leather of their boots, wrapped in thongs; knife hilts protruding from down-turned cuffs. Their odour, rancid and foul, carried on the still air – overpowering any hint of her own almost human smell, tinged with the sharp tang of bergamot.
Lanea crept from the shadows when it was safe and turned in the opposite direction than the troupe had taken. If she could help it they would not catch her, and somehow she would find a way to free her friends. She ran through the underbrush on light feet. Stopped in a clearing, full in a shaft of sun, turning her head as she judged which way to go. Her hair was a tangled mass of long, dark curls embedded with twigs and leaves. Her face was streaked with dirt and taut as she listened - her hazel eyes wide and determined. Her breath was shallow as she stood, the light bronzing her shoulders, moulding the slow curve of her . . .
Darien stopped and looked at his screen in disgust, highlighted the last paragraph and clicked on cut. This was the third time in the last twenty minutes he had done so. He felt like throwing his keyboard against the wall. He got up and paced the room, looked through his window. But that didn’t help. His view stretched over the trees and he could see the moss covered shingles of her roof and the translucent arch of one of her greenhouses.
Characters have a way of growing and shaping themselves out of nothing, but this one kept trying to become her. His pale-eyed Lanea who shied away from confrontation was suddenly standing up to opposition – defying her enemies. He knew where the tangled hair and hazel eyes came from. That image had been burned into his brain, along with the smudges on her cheek, the faint smell of citrus he had caught even through the wood smoke, and apparently the way her wet shirt had clung to her rounded . . . well, he was only human. He couldn’t pretend that even in his anger he hadn’t noticed. But what had made the greatest impression that day by the fire, and had done at their first confrontation, were the flashing hazel eyes. But, God was she a shrew!
He sat down again; attacked his keys. Forced a description of gooseberry eyes, hair that grew in short, mousy tufts, a body angular and awkward. Made her creep through leathery leaves and hanging vines where daylight refused to go. Sat back and looked at the sentences that seemed to taunt him. Words that held no magic and sat ungainly and frozen on the white background. He pressed save and exit, knowing that when he opened the document again he would have to change it. Lanea was forming her own life regardless of his wishes. If he were to finish the book he would have to allow her to become herself. He had to find a way for her to become just that, and not the embodiment of his next-door neighbour.
He grabbed his jean jacket and headed down to the barn. Soon he was riding across the fields, galloping hard, taking fences full on. Attempting to escape the inescapable.
"I went by there the other day, you know." Carl jerked his head back over his shoulder.
Darien knew he did not mean the small den that led off from the dining room.
Lina served herself some salad and wrinkled up her nose. "Not the crack house?"
Carl narrowed his eyes at his sister. "It was never a crack house."
"No," said Darien. "Just a welfare refuge, a delinquent hangout, and a garbage dump."
"Collier allowed the place to be trashed," admitted Carl, "but you’d be amazed at how those girls have fixed it up."
"A little paint doesn’t change a decrepit house like that for long. I’m sure it’s structurally unsound." Darien cut himself a piece of chicken, but continued talking before eating it. "And now she's collected a group of misfits to live there with her. The old hippie is still squatting in the shed, there’s a girl on a damn noisy motor bike, and some other floozy with a dented Toyota."
"Oh, I’ve seen it," said Lina. "It looks like a tin can."
Carl put his fork down, rested his elbows on the table, and leaned forward, glaring. "Have you even bothered to get to know them? How can you make those types of judgements just because they don’t have the kind of money you do to be able to afford new cars or rebuild houses? Why should she be a floozy just because of the car she drives?"
"The bleached blonde hair and the tacky clothes say it all," said Lina.
"For your information, her name is Joy, and not only is she incredibly beautiful, she’s the kindest, most positive person I’ve ever met."
"Sorry - bad choice of words," said Darien. "But tell me, what’s her profession? Or is she on the dole?"
"Or does she waitress at the pub?" asked Lina, with a smirk at Darien.
He ignored her and looked at Carl.
"If I didn’t know that you really are astute, caring, and liberal minded, I’d think you were one hell of a jerk." Carl pushed his plate away. "You’ve got to get over this mental block about that place and anyone involved with it."
Darien reached out and patted Carl’s shoulder. "You’re right. I’m being irrational. I had a tough day and I’m taking it out on them. Calm down and eat your supper and tell me all about her. I can see light of love shining in your eyes."
"She’s a cashier at Super Store," Carl said. "I know that doesn’t sound like much, but she’s very creative and does crafts and she makes great tea."
"Tea, eh?" said Darien with a wink.
"And she has the most amazing blue eyes . . ." Carl drifted off, a dreamy look on his face.
"What about the biker chick?" asked Lina. "Really, I don’t know what kind of a mother that . . . what’s her name? Elaine? I mean she has a kid and she’s not married and then she has all those girls living there, and the old transient in the shack out back. What kind of an environment is that for a child?"
"What do you know about being a mother?" Darien shot at her.
Lina looked at Darien in surprise. "Where did that come from?"
As his thinking had been on similar lines as what Lina had just said, he wondered the same thing himself. Must be that the idea of being on the same wavelength as Lina bothered him. He concentrated on his baked potato and didn’t answer her.
"Her name is Elana, and she’s very nice, Lina," said Carl. "I met her kid and she’s done a great job with him. It’s not easy being a single parent – I think she’s been divorced for quite a few years and had to raise him mostly on her own. And the biker chick, as you call her, is friendly, has a good sense of humour, and no visible tattoos or weird body piercings. They are all normal, down to earth people, and I don’t care what either of you think, but I’m going to keep visiting them."
"Of course you are," said Lina. "You’re in loooove."
"Justie is coming home for Thanksgiving," said Darien, thinking it was about time the subject changed. "She’s planning on moving back here for good and giving riding lessons again."
"Really?" said Lina. "That would be so wonderful. She’s the best teacher you’ve ever had. And maybe she could help me out by judging the equestrian events in the spring. You must miss her so much – I know I do. It’s been hard on you to have your little sister so far away."
"It’s not like Victoria is on the moon, Lina," said Carl.
Darien laughed, glad to see his friend’s good humour restored. He was also relieved that they were no longer talking about Elana. It had been too tempting to ask questions . . . the less he knew about her the better. He had a book to write and he wasn’t about to let her image take over his novel. Why she had left such a strong impression, he hadn’t a clue – he’d only actually interacted with her twice. He knew that when he was writing his mind became very receptive to the most surprising stimuli. Sometimes it impeded the process, other times it was an amazing creative catalyst. This time he wasn’t prepared to explore the phenomenon, either way.
Elana dumped the full wheelbarrow and then arched and stretched, rubbing the small of her back. She had to get used to strenuous physical labour again, and cleaning out the greenhouses was more arduous than anything she’d ever done at her old job. She was only half way through her first week and it was already killing her. It wasn’t just the blisters on her hands and her aching muscles, but the mindlessness of the tasks. Picking rocks, pulling weeds, sifting through assorted junk. Sam had been at it for a while already and had set up a system. There was a pile for compostable materials, another for rocks, a burning pile, one for recyclables, reusables, and things that needed to go to the dump. All the piles were growing at quite an alarming rate. He assured her that it wouldn’t be long before the ban on burning was lifted and also that he would build that new fire as far away from Stewart Stables as possible, closer to the other boundary line. Dennis had arranged to come the following Sunday to remove the recyclables and the useless garbage.
Every morning was a mad dash to get Cody off to school, then Elana would return to a quick breakfast of her own. After that she worked without a break until it was time to pick him up again. She ate her lunch while he had his afternoon snack, then she went back out to work while he played around the greenhouses or explored the property. Either Chandra or Joy cooked supper depending on their shifts. After supper they all chatted for a bit while Elana supervised homework. Later she played games with Cody, or read to him until bedtime. She went to bed at the same time as her son, bone tired, and fell asleep almost as soon as her head hit the pillow.
Giving a small groan, Elana rubbed her back again and pushed the wheelbarrow along the path to the greenhouse she was clearing out. She dumped out plastic pots that had shrivelled up plants in them. The pots were so old and brittle that very few of them were worth keeping. She stacked them in one corner as she concentrated on filling her barrow with the dead plants and dried-out soil. At least none of it was heavy. It was just the bending that was bothersome.
Sam entered the greenhouse and called out to her. "Fancy a change of scene?"
She looked over to him and smiled. "Are you offering a trip to a beach on Maui?"
"Nothing near so good. I was wondering if you wanted to make blackberry jam. They’re falling off the bushes and I can’t keep up with them."
Elana thought of the tasty pies Chandra had baked with the last bucket he had brought her. His donations were making a great difference to her food budget what with the berries, apples, tomatoes, and squash he was always providing. "I’ve never made jam, and I don’t have any of the stuff I would need, like pots and jars and things."
"Don’t worry about anything. I always make jam every year and sell it at the roadside stand. With all the greenhouse work I haven’t had time to do it this year. I’ll bring everything up to the house and all you’ll have to do is cook it. I’ve been picking berries all morning."
"But I don’t know how to make jam."
"Nothing easier. I’ll bring you some recipes and show you how it’s done. When you go to get Cody from school you could run by Super Store and get a couple of twenty kilo sacks of sugar."
Elana set her wheelbarrow aside with a sigh of relief. She carried two full buckets of blackberries up to the house and then washed her hands and waited for Sam. He was along very soon and when they had the first batch of jam bubbling on the stove he explained how to sterilise the jars and lids and showed her a few other recipes.
"I’ll bring you some apples too. Blackberry and apple is great – these apples have lots of pectin – that’s what sets the jam – and here’s one for jelly and another for apple butter."
The rest of the week was spent preserving fruit. Elana made a few different types of jellies: blackberry, spiced apple, and crab apple, as well as the jams. When Chandra and Joy were around they took part in the activity too. Even Cody did his bit, either helping Sam collect fruit or measuring ingredients in the kitchen. They completely filled an entire counter with jar upon jar of gleaming burgundy and amber preserves, which instilled in both Cody and Elana an inordinate feeling of pride. In no time they were running out of room to put them all. On Saturday Cody excitedly stocked the little stand down by the road while Sam put out the bright new sign that Joy had painted for them.
Business was good as somehow most of Sam’s regular customers got wind that the jam was ready. Cody enjoyed rolling the jars in newspaper and packing them into bags for the people. In the afternoon Elana came down to see how they were making out. She decided to relieve Sam and sent Cody off to play because it was too nice of a day for him to be cooped up in the stand the whole time. The first hour she was there saw a lot of business, but soon she was able to settle down and read the book that she had brought. At the sound of a car’s horn she raised her head. There was a silver BMW idling in the street. It was very familiar – she had seen it coming in and out of Stewart Stables on quite a few occasions as she was driving by. The driver waved to her to come to the car. She was surprised because most people had parked and walked over to the stand, but she resigned herself that it wasn’t about to happen in this case, and so went up to the road to see what the woman wanted.
"May I help you?"
The woman’s hair was died a coppery red, and spiked stylishly with mousse. She waved a skinny arm towards the stand. "How very quaint! You’re like a child with a lemonade stand. It is all just too cute."
Elana could not see her eyes because of the reflective lenses of the sunglasses she wore, but her attitude was one of condescension, not humour. "Actually, it’s jam." Her voice was just barely polite.
"Jam," the woman said, as if it was something unheard of. "Can you actually make a living selling jam by the side of the road?"
"It is not my intention to make my living this way, but if you think of it, all this fruit would have gone to waste if we didn’t make the jam, and all the people that have come to buy it would have been disappointed."
"You actually have customers?"
"It has been hard to keep up with the demand." Elana turned to go. She had no interest in being belittled by the roadside, and breathing in the noxious exhaust fumes at the same time.
"Ah . . . well . . . I see. But isn’t jam so very unhealthy with all that sugar and all those other terrible ingredients in it?"
"Oh – you mean the blackberries and the apples?" She did nothing to hide the sarcasm in her voice.
The woman chose to ignore the remark and instead said, "I would buy some if you had a sugarless variety. I’m very health conscious and community spirited. I support all the local charities. Do you make it with artificial sweeteners?"
Elana pulled a pad and pencil out of her pocket and smiled sweetly. "We seem to be all out of the diet jam that we make with that lovely aspartame that causes cancer in lab rats, but I can take your order for our next batch. How many jars would you like?"
The woman put her car into gear and sped off. Elana stalked back to the stand. She shouldn’t have reacted so strongly, but she had to admit that it had hurt to be compared with a child and a lemonade stand, and to be referred to as a charity case. As if all the work she was doing was childish and futile. As if she was a fool to even think she stood a chance of making a living from her greenhouse business. She saw the woman pull a quick U-turn down the road and then speed past her, sending a cloud of dust flying. Barely braking, the BMW turned and tore up the driveway to the stables. Elana suddenly had the idea that the woman might just be Darien Stewart’s wife or girlfriend, and the notion of him being stuck with a witch like that brought a smile to her face.
September slid into October but Elana barely noticed. All she could think of was her sore back, her aching muscles, and her bed. The air mattress was not giving her the support that she needed. She had vowed she would wait for the perfect bed, but she hadn’t even had time to look in more stores or check in the Buy and Sell. Her weekend had been completely taken up with work and the next weekend was Thanksgiving. Sam had all kinds of ideas about selling pumpkin pies and gourds from the roadside stand. Chandra offered to share her secret recipe for crust, so Sunday evening was lesson night.
"We can make up a few batches and freeze them, and then on Friday you just have to prepare all the filling," said Chandra.
"I can’t believe Sam did all this by himself last year with only that wood stove of his." Elana busied herself cutting the butter into the flour.
"Remember, he wasn’t doing anything else."
"Right," she said, rubbing her back.
"You’ve severely got to do something about that bed," said Chandra. "Have you tried the little store just across the bridge in Courtney?"
"After you drive past the pool and the skate park."
"Is it an antique store?"
"Well . . . it’s really more of a curio shop, but you can’t believe the stuff that lady has – and she’s like Madame Zonda or something – you expect her to pull out a crystal ball or read your tea leaves. She’s too much – really."
Elana pushed her hair from her eyes with the back of her hand, lightly dusting her forehead with flour. "Cody has his first soccer practice tomorrow after school. I’ll go take a look while he’s at the park – that’s the same one that has the soccer fields, right?"
The next day after school Cody was eagerly awaiting his mother at the school fence.
"Mom! We don’t need to go buy soccer shoes. Bryce says his dad is bringing a few used pairs for me to try on – and he’s got extra shin pads too." Cody gave her a big hug. "So that means we can go straight to the soccer field and I won’t be late."
"No, you’ll be early instead you silly noodle. Excited, eh?" Elana said as she rubbed the top of his head fluffing his hair into unruly curls.
"Bryce says I’m really good for someone who’s never played for a league before, but I want to practice a bit before the rest of the team comes."
"I’ve got your ball in the car. Let’s go."
As they drove the short distance to town, Elana reflected on how glad she was that Cody had settled in at his school so easily and had made a few close friends already. When he had come home begging to join Bryce’s soccer team, she’d agreed readily and dialled the phone number Bryce had given him. The season had already started, but she was able to get Cody in on a late registration. It paid to know the right people – Bryce’s dad was not only the coach but he was the division co-ordinator and the league registrar.
Elana parked beside the community centre and then went out on the field with Cody as he ran about with his ball and took practice shots at the goal. About fifteen minutes later a man with a huge bag of balls approached her, and the two boys with him went running off to join Cody.
"You must be Cody’s mom," he said, holding out his hand. "I’m Coach Jerry."
"I’m Elana Barnes," she said, "but just call me Elana. I brought all the stuff you asked for, the checks and a copy of his birth certificate."
"Excellent," he said, "And I brought these." He waved some shoes he was holding by the laces.
"That’s so kind of you."
"Well, I hope they fit," he said. "Are you staying for the practice?"
"No, I’m going to walk to the shops."
The coach called Cody over to try on the shoes and Elana, after ensuring that Cody was feeling comfortable in this new situation, walked across the field in the direction of the bridge. Normally she would have spent some time gazing over the parapet at the smoothly running water, but she felt an urging of excitement at the idea of possibly finding a bed like she had envisioned. The block of stores that led away from the bridge was old and dingy. She almost passed the curio shop, thinking that it must have been the next block that Chandra had meant, but a flash of deep red caught her eye.
There, through the dusty window, a beautiful small carpet was laid out. The red was rich and dark, with traditional designs in black and white and a lighter shade of red. As she looked at it, she no longer saw the window of the grimy shop, but the hardwood of her living room floor, her dark green couch, and the oak coffee table. A little bell rang over the door as she walked in. A tiny grey-haired lady materialised from behind a curtain in the back.
"I’ve just made tea," she said. She tilted her head to one side, which only added to her bird-like quality. "You are interested in the rug."
It wasn’t a question, but a statement. Despite her look of fragility the woman’s voice was strong and sure.
"How did you know?" asked Elana.
"I have had it in my back room for weeks. This morning I felt an urge to place it in the window. I knew someone like you would come and claim it – someone who knows what she wants."
"I was really looking for something else, but I did want a carpet."
"Of course you did. Let me tell you a little about its history while we drink our tea." She motioned to a delicate round mahogany table with a Chinese teapot on it. "Jasmine," she said as she poured it into fine tea-bowls.
Elana bemusedly sat and thanked her, sipping the tea, her hands cupped around the china.
"It is a Middle Eastern prayer rug. The family who owned it bought it thirty years ago from a travelling trader in Malaysia." She went on to speak of the wool, the number of knots per square inch, and the significance of the various designs incorporated to make up the pattern of the rug. "Though all of this is to your liking I have a feeling that something is bothering you, causing indecision."
Elana nodded. "I can’t help but think of the small child who tied all those knots. It is a beautiful thing, but it was created out of servitude. I’ve heard of the terrible conditions the children worked in and the long hours."
"All this is true. I believe you are one of the rare people who can see the child’s soul in his creation, but I must give you two things to ponder. The first is harsh. Without this occupation would the child’s future have been any better? I do not know the answer to that question. Now we can do something to help abolish this kind of slavery, but this rug was made long ago, and whether you buy it or not, it will not change the history of the making of it. Stay. Take the time to decide. You must be happy with your possession."
Elana sat and drank her tea. She looked about the room. There was a bizarre mixture of furniture, ornaments, and china. Clocks, vases, statuettes, and chess sets covered every surface and filled cabinets. She felt an odd sense of peace amid all the clutter. She sat back and allowed her mind to empty, and when it was clear opened it to the carpet lying in soft, glowing richness between an umbrella stand and a baroque mirror. What came into her mind was that she, of all the people who had ever owned the carpet, would see the child and not forget him. She would hold the suffering within the warmth of her heart and cherish the gift of beauty it had wrought.
As she turned to voice her decision, she noticed a bookshelf against one wall. It was golden oak, low, with deep, worn shelves, an assortment of battered books lying haphazardly in it.
"Is the bookshelf for sale?"
"It is if you want to buy it."
"Yes, I would like to, and the carpet too, but I don’t have much money to spend."
"I will give you a price that will work for you. The true value of something is not monetary, but what the object means to the owner. These things mean more to you than they do to me, or the next person who might come into the store. If they should be yours it is only right that they are affordable." The lady smiled at her and patted her hand. "When you came into the store you told me you were looking for something other than the carpet. What was that?"
Elana told her about the bed and bureau that she had such a clear vision of when awakening upon her first morning in her new bedroom. The lady promised to call her if she ever came across anything remotely resembling the description. Elana gave the lady her phone number, paid for the carpet and bookshelf, and explained that she had to walk back to the park for her car but would return for the items as soon as she could.
When she got out onto the sidewalk she suddenly became aware of how long she had actually been in the shop. She sprinted over the bridge and into the park, relieved to see the children were still running about the field after the ball. When she arrived to the sidelines the coach blew his whistle and the kids all huddled around him. One of the mothers leaned over to Elana and said, "I can see you are used to coaches. They never end practices on time – if I was smarter I’d have come fifteen minutes late too."
Elana smiled and shook her head, stating that she was ignorant of coaches’ habits but thankful for them because she truly was late. Cody came rushing off the field and flung himself upon Elana. "That was the most fun ever! Thanks for registering me mom."
"He’s a natural," said the coach as he passed them, his ball bag slung over his shoulder. "He’s going to be a real asset to the team. Now, don’t forget to practice your dribbling, Cody. See you on Wednesday!"
Elana kissed Cody’s forehead. "C’mon. We’d better hurry. I didn’t find a bed in that store I went to but I bought something else and I can’t wait to get it into our living room."
Cody liked her purchases but was more interested in telling Elana everything he had done in the practice, down to the minutest detail. It didn’t take Elana long to realise that she was going to learn almost as much about soccer as her son.
"You’ll come to my game on Saturday, won’t you mom?" he said for probably the third time as they carried the bookshelf into the living room together.
"I wouldn’t miss it for the world, honey," Elana said, as they placed the bookshelf against the wall. She stood back and appraised it, then moved it over a foot.
"Nice bed!" said Chandra appreciatively.
"I didn’t find a bed," said Elana, "but wait until you see the carpet I bought."
"Chandra, can you come to my soccer game on Saturday?" asked Cody, dancing around her.
"Slow down, you maniac," she said. "What time is it at?"
"Ummm . . . ten o’clock, right mom?"
"Dunno, buster," said Chandra. "I’ll check my schedule. Hope I’m not on breakfast shift, because if you play soccer as well as you can dance, that’s gotta be a sight to see."
"Where’s Joy? Is she home?" asked Cody.
"Then I’m going to go ask Sam – can I mom?"
"Sure Cody, anything that will get rid of your steam." When he ran out the back door she looked at Chandra. "Who knew soccer practice would give him even more energy? I thought it would tire him out."
"Go get your carpet already, girl. I’m dying to see it and to hear if Madame Zonda and you had a séance."
When Cody came back he found his mom lying on the carpet staring up at the ceiling.
"Shh, she’s meditating," said Chandra with a grin.
"I am not," said Elana, rolling over and sitting up. "Look Cody – isn’t it perfect?"
"Yes mom. Do you think Smeagol will like it?"
"Don’t tell me!" she said, but he didn’t have to. Cody’s eyes were shining even more than they had been before.
Sam walked in from the kitchen. "I’ve put the litter box in the laundry room if that’s okay with you, Elana, and there’s a bag of food on the counter." He handed the kitten over to Cody. "Here ya go. Let the little guy get used to his new house."
Cody held the tiny kitten close and stroked his head. Soon Smeagol had crawled up to sit on his shoulder. "Will he miss Twilight?"
"You just keep him company all evening and he’ll be fine," said Sam.
"Thanks for everything, Sam," said Elana and then she suddenly jumped up. "I’d better stop daydreaming and get supper cooked! You want to stay, Sam?"
"Thanks, but I’ve got stew ready at home. I’ll see you tomorrow."
Chandra followed Elana into the kitchen and soon they were cutting up vegetables and frying strips of chicken. Cody sat on the carpet and placed Smeagol beside him. The little grey kitten sniffed and walked forward tentatively, then skittered back to Cody’s lap. Each time Cody placed him down again he ventured a little further. Soon he was scampering about the room and almost got stuck under the couch twice, only Cody managed to drag him out. Half an hour later Elana came into the living room to say that supper was ready. Both Cody and the kitten were curled up on the rug fast asleep.
On Tuesday afternoon Darien gave up all attempts at writing. The chapter was dragging. In the end he’d let Lanea have her way; her eyes were hazel, her hair was an unruly tangle of dark curls, she was defiant and persistent. And obstinate, which was his main problem now. She was insisting on facing the Thregols when she was unprepared and had no idea what she was getting into. He hadn’t a clue how he would get her out of the mess she was heading for. He closed all his windows and put his computer on standby, then headed down to the stables. He needed to check the west fence anyway, so he may as well go for a ride.
Phantom was a horse that never got spooked, so when he stopped short by a stand of trees Darien wondered what was up. He patted the horse’s neck to calm him, and then dismounted. Phantom did not seem so much disturbed as interested, and Darien moved aside a low hanging branch of Douglas fir to see what had caught the horse’s attention. There was a boy under the tree, close up against the trunk.
"Hi." Darien did a swift appraisal. The boy’s hair was dark, a trifle long with loose curls falling on his forehead. He had a face like a pixie, and his wide-open eyes were unmistakably hazel. He was wearing a striped t-shirt and old blue jeans with torn knees.
"Are you going to come out? My horse wants to meet you."
"Am I on . . . is this your property, mister?"
"Yes. How did you get here?"
"You’re not mad?"
"No. You’re not doing anything wrong, only . . . does your mom know where you are?"
"I didn’t mean to leave my yard – I just wanted to explore it to the end. There’s a hole in the fence."
"Holes are always irresistible."
The boy smiled. "Did you go through holes in fences when you were a kid?"
"Worse. I climbed over perfectly good ones."
This time the boy laughed.
"I think we should get you home to your mom." Darien held his hand out and the boy took it and came out from under the tree.
"Are you still mad at my mom?"
"What . . . oh – you mean about the fire. No. I kind of got carried away that day. Sorry."
"That’s okay. What’s your horse’s name?" The boy reached up and nuzzled the animal’s velvety nose.
"Phantom. Would you like to ride him?"
"I’ve never ridden a horse before."
"It’s easy. I’ll be leading him. You aren’t frightened are you?"
"Do you think your mom would mind? Phantom is very good with children or I wouldn’t have suggested it."
"I don’t think she’ll mind."
"Okay. Come here – I’ll have to toss you up." When Darien had him in the saddle he smiled up at him and said, "What’s your name?"
"So, how does it feel to be up there, Cody?"
"Just hang on to the saddle horn and we’ll get going."
Darien led the horse along to the fence that divided the two properties and Cody showed him where the hole was. Then they followed it as closely as possible until they were behind the riding ring. The entire time they talked about Phantom and horse riding and cowboys.
When the house was in view Cody said, "I’ll just get off here and run through the trees."
"What about the fence?" asked Darien. "There’s no hole."
"Is it okay if I climb over?"
"I think that’s a better idea than going under."
Cody laughed again. "Thanks for giving me a ride on your horse."
"You’re welcome. If you ever want lessons, just let me know." Darien held his hand up in a half salute, half wave. As he watched Cody run off he smiled. What a nice kid – and did he ever look like his mom. He turned around and started leading Phantom to the stables. As he hung up all the tack and curried the horse, ideas for his story began swirling around in his mind. He still didn’t know how he’d get Lanea out of the trouble she was headed for, but he had a clearer idea of some of the happenings on her way into it.
Cody hopped off the top rail of the fence and walked through the trees. He was just about to run across the yard between the house and the greenhouses when he saw a sudden movement. At first he thought is was a dog, but then realised it was a goat. He crept up behind it and grabbed it about the neck before it could run off. He dragged it, twisting and turning, until he was almost at the back door.
"Mom! Mom! I caught a goat!"
Elana opened the door and stared out in disbelief. "Now where in heaven’s name did you find a goat?"
"Just here in the yard."
"We’ll have to get Sam. He might know where it came from."
They found Sam in the far greenhouse and when he saw the goat he laughed.
"That’s Jessabelle! She’s a rare old sneak, that one. Just give me a minute to get a rope and I’ll take her back over across the way."
The excitement with the goat drove everything else out of Cody’s mind. He spent the evening alternating between doing his homework and coming up with new and interesting reasons why they really needed to get a goat of their own. It wasn’t until he was lying in his bed on the edge of sleep that he realised he had forgotten to tell his mom that he’d met the next door neighbour and even ridden on his horse. He resolved to tell her in the morning – sleep was more important right at that moment. And in his dreams he rode a horse that looked like a goat all the way to the soccer field
All day Friday Elana baked pumpkins for the pie filling. They were going to spend the evening baking as many pies as they could. Sam intended to sell them Saturday morning from the roadside stand and regretfully told Cody he would have to miss his first soccer game. Cody was quite philosophical about it, telling Sam that there would be many more so it was okay if he missed one.
Pies started going in the oven as early as four o’clock. At four pies per batch, and about an hour and a quarter baking time, the eighth batch of pies was still in the oven at midnight. Elana was totally beat, and Cody had long since gone to bed with Smeagol curled up on his pillow beside him. Chandra was moving cooled pies to shelves in the laundry room, which stayed much colder than the rest of the house. The front door opened and Joy came in from her late shift. She threw herself on the couch and took a deep breath of the air fragrant with baking.
"I love pumpkin pies," she said.
"I’m not sure if I ever want to see another one," said Elana with a grin.
"You mean you won’t eat some on Sunday with our Thanksgiving dinner?" asked Joy.
"I’m sure I will."
"Speaking of the dinner, I did something you might be mad at me for."
"What could you do that would make me mad?"
"I invited someone without asking you."
"Don’t worry – there’ll be plenty of food – it’s just all of us and Sam. Who did you invite?"
Joy blushed. "Carl Bingham."
"What?" Elana sat up suddenly and looked at her. "Where did you see him?"
"He’s been in the store a few times since he came over here. He . . . um . . . joined me for my coffee break tonight."
Chandra had come into the living room by this time and sat beside Joy. "Planned or just a coincidence?"
"Well, he asked me when my break was earlier while he was shopping."
"You’ve been holding out on us, sugar!" Chandra gave her a poke in the ribs.
"I didn’t want to say anything until, well . . . you know . . . I knew he was interested."
"Elana and I knew he was interested the moment he saw you."
Joy blushed some more and giggled. "So is it okay if he comes for dinner?"
"He’s more than welcome, as long as he knows it’s not going to be very special," said Elana.
"He’ll hardly care if it’s Martha Stewart or not anyway," said Chandra. "We could give him Kraft Dinner and he’d be happy as long as Joy was by his side."
"Stop it!" said Joy, giving Chandra a friendly shove.
Elana got up to check the last batch of pies and take them out of the oven. Thirty-two pies. She hoped that Sam was right and he could sell them all. As much as she liked pumpkin pies the idea of eating thirty or so of them was a little daunting.
The next morning Cody and Elana had to be at the field by 10:30 for an eleven o’clock game. Cody was proudly sauntering about the house in his soccer uniform - royal blue shorts with a blue and white striped jersey. The day was bright and crisp so Elana, Joy, and Chandra dressed more warmly for standing around on the sidelines. Both girls had to leave the game early to be at work by noon so they were driving themselves in on time for the kick off. Elana managed to get Cody to sit still long enough to eat a plate of pancakes and then they were off.
When they arrived at the field the previous game had just ended and the boys all ran out to do their warm up exercises and then some dribbling and shooting drills. Elana was proud to see how adept Cody was after only two practices. There was a tall man on the field who she hadn’t seen before and when Cody came off just before game time, she asked him who he was.
"That’s the assistant coach."
"Does he have a boy on the team?"
"No – he used to be a pro. He’s awesome."
Joy and Chandra arrived and gave Cody high fives before he ran onto the field and took up his position in left mid.
"Why have I never come to these games before?" said Chandra emitting a low whistle. "Take a look at that!" She jerked her head to the right where the coaches were standing calling instructions out to the boys.
"He’s the assistant coach," said Elana. "Unless you were referring to the older one who’s balding."
"I’m referring to the stud that has all the mothers drooling. Don’t tell me he’s married."
"I have no idea – I’ve never met him. Cody did say he doesn’t have a kid on the team, but that doesn’t mean anything."
"Be still my heart!" said Chandra. "I don’t believe you haven’t gone and introduced yourself yet."
"He’s busy coaching," said Elana.
"That wouldn’t stop me," said Chandra.
The whistle blew and the game started. Elana knew less than nothing about soccer but she cheered and yelled encouragement to all the players on Cody’s team and became apprehensive whenever the opposing team gained possession of the ball. She didn’t understand when the whistles blew for fouls, or why sometimes the boys were allowed to throw the ball in or at other times a kick was taken from the corner of the field, but when Cody passed the ball to a boy in front of him who shot and scored she understood well enough and cheered him heartily for his first assist.
At half time the game was tied 1-1, and the boys were all given a pep talk by the coaches as they ate sliced oranges. One of the mothers came up and introduced herself to Elana and put her name down on the orange list.
"You just cut up about a dozen oranges and bring them to the game," she explained.
Cody joined them full of excitement. "Did you see that when I stole the ball and passed it up to the forward and he scored? Did you see my slide check? Did you see when I got to do the throw in? Coach Colin said I did it really well because I remembered to drag my toe and brought the ball back over my head properly before I threw it – and I got it right to my man!"
"That was a great assist," said Elana.
"Awesome," said Joy.
Chandra nudged Elana and whispered in her ear. "Don’t look now, but he’s coming over."
"I hear one of you ladies is Cody’s mom," he said, holding his hand out. "I’m Colin Fox, the assistant coach."
"I’m Elana, his mom." Elana took Colin’s hand and shook it.
"I’m Chandra, his surrogate mom," said Chandra holding out her hand and smiling.
Colin shook her hand and Joy’s as well then turned back to Elana. "He’s really shaping up. We’re glad to have him on our team."
"So, you’re new in the area?"
"Yes. I own some greenhouses on Haven Road."
"The ones beside Stewart Stables?"
"Great. I know exactly where that is. Well, I’d better get back to the kids. Half time’s just about over. I’ll see you later." He smiled and walked away.
"My prayers are answered," said Chandra. "No ring."
"What do you mean?" asked Elana, confused.
"She checked him out for a wedding ring," Joy giggled.
"You are a madwoman," Elana said to Chandra.
"I’m not the one who practically drew him a map to my front door," said Chandra. "Though if it had been up to me I’d have invited him to dinner tomorrow while I was at."
"There’s still time. You can run over and ask him before the whistle blows."
"I don’t know what kind of girl you think I am. Anyway, I’m in total awe. I’m just going to stand here and replay the sound of his voice over and over in my head."
They all laughed and then the whistle blew and the game recommenced. It was a tightly fought battle. The saves on both sides were amazing, bringing on groans and gasps, depending on which team had stopped the ball. By the time Joy and Chandra had to leave the game was still tied. Cody was weaving through players, carrying the ball up the left side of the field and just about to pass when he was fouled hard from behind. He lay on the ground, winded, as the assistant coach ran onto the field and then limped off with Colin’s arm around his shoulders. Elana worried that he was hurt but knew better than to run over and embarrass him. Colin brought Cody right to Elana.
"He’ll probably have a few scrapes and bruises even through his shin guards," he said. And then he turned to Cody. "Just let me know when you feel up to it and I’ll put you back in the game."
"Thanks," said Elana. "Are you okay tiger?"
Cody was busy rolling down his sock and pulling back his shin guard to examine a nasty scrape. He nodded his head bravely and then pulled his sock back up and began cheering his team on. The free kick given to his team for the foul against him put the ball into great position. A shot was rebounded, passed quickly to right forward and driven hard into the top corner of the goal. Cody jumped up and down and then ran back to his coach to see if he could enter the game again in the remaining few minutes.
Elana watched as Cody ran onto the field to replace an exhausted player and was relieved to see that he was barely limping. A man standing on the other side of the field caught her eye. Even from that distance she knew immediately who it was. There was just something about how he stood – the way he held his body – that told her it was Darien Stewart and she was at a loss as to why he was watching eight year olds play soccer. As far as she knew he had no children, but she had to admit that she knew little about him besides the fact that he was an arrogant self-righteous jerk. She turned her attention back to the game and cheered as Cody stole the ball from an opposing player and kicked it downfield. The referee checked his watch and blew three long blasts on his whistle signifying the end of the game. The boys all cheered then rushed to line up and shake hands with the opposition. As they came running off the field she noticed Darien Stewart walk out and speak with the assistant coach, Colin, and then pat him on the back and walk away over to the parking lot. She was still watching him, lost in thought, as he got into his truck and backed out of his parking stall.
"Mom! Mom! Earth to mom! Can you hear me?"
Elana shook herself and turned to Cody. "Sorry. I was just wondering what he was doing here."
"It’s not important. Congratulations buddy! Your game was wonderful."
"Thanks! The coach said the team we played was undefeated!"
"Now they’re not! They met their match today."
"Sure did!" Cody grabbed his mom’s hand and started retelling every play of the game as they walked back to the car. Colin Fox smiled and waved at them from across the lot as he got into a new black Thunderbird. Elana waved back and watched him as he drove out. She wondered about him and Darien Stewart. They were similar in height and build, and although Darien was decidedly the better looking of the two, Colin had the friendly personality that Darien lacked. If her neighbour had been more like the assistant coach, she might have found herself in some serious trouble, because then she would have had a hard time hating him.
After lunch, Elana allowed Cody to go down to the stand to help Sam while she began to bring some order to her kitchen in preparation for the big meal the next day. The turkey was in the laundry room sink thawing out, and Sam had brought a sack of freshly dug potatoes up to the porch in the morning. She checked that they had enough butter and bread, garlic and onions, wild rice, mushrooms, and herbs for the stuffing, then she got out her recipe for buttered yam and pecan casserole, and began preparing it.
Cody told Sam all about his game in between customers. After about an hour Sam said that most of the people he expected had been by and suggested they should close up shop, but Cody was enjoying being in charge of the booth and told Sam he’d look after it on his own to see if he could sell any of the half dozen pies still remaining. Twenty minutes later, Cody realised that Sam had been right. Not one car had even driven down the road let alone stopped to buy anything. Just standing in the booth was becoming quite boring. Cody helped himself to a slice of the sample pie and left the stand to sit under a tree and idly throw rocks into the ditch. A large dark blue truck drove up and he hurriedly stood and ran over to the roadside.
"Oh! It’s you," he said as a familiar tall figure climbed out.
"What’re you selling today?" asked Darien Stewart.
"Pumpkin pie. Do you want to try some? It’s really good, even without whipping cream."
"No jam? My sister really likes jam and I was hoping to buy her some."
"I could get you a jar from the house and bring it over to your place. Did you want blackberry or apple jelly?"
"Blackberry would be great, and I’ll taste your pie. Did you make it?"
"I helped a little, but it was mostly my mom and Chandra. Joy was at work." Cody served a piece of pie on a paper plate and found him a plastic fork.
Darien leaned against his truck and tasted the pie. "Delicious. Could I have two?"
"Sure!" cried Cody and carried them out to the truck carefully, one at a time. "I knew you would like it."
"You tell your mom she’s a good cook," he said as he reached into his pocket for his wallet. "How much do I owe you?"
"The pies are eight dollars each, but you get two for fifteen."
"That’s a deal. And how about the jam?"
"It’s four dollars a jar."
He gave Cody a twenty. "You keep the change as a delivery charge for the jam. Bring it up to my house whenever you have the time. I’ll see you later. And don’t forget to ask your mom about riding lessons."
"I won’t," said Cody who just realised he had not yet even said a word to his mom about meeting Mr. Stewart and having a ride on his horse the other day.
"By the way, I caught the end of your soccer game. I never knew you played – you looked good out there. I saw you get taken down hard too, how’s your leg?"
"A bit scraped but it’s okay."
"Good man!" He gave Cody his empty plate and then waved as he got into his truck and backed up to his own driveway.
It wasn’t long after Darien had left before Elana came down to see how Cody was doing. He was just about to tell her about his big sale when a silver BMW drove up. A lady with spiky red hair lowered her window and looked over at them impatiently.
"Not again," said Elana under her breath as she went up to see what the stick woman wanted. Cody followed her.
"What are you selling today in your cute little stand?" she asked.
"Pumpkin pies," said Cody.
"They are amazingly fattening," said Elana. "They are full of cream and eggs and brown sugar and maple syrup. If I’d known you were coming I’d have made some with just pumpkin and artificial sweetener. You should have pre-ordered."
"Do you really think I would buy anything from your roadside stand? I only stopped to warn you that we’re not going to allow this kind of thing to continue. Do you have a business licence? Has the board of health inspected your kitchen? Darien will report you – I can guarantee it. There is no way he’ll stand for the sort of gross violations you are involved in. And putting your child to work too – there are child labour laws you know." She didn’t wait for a reply but put her car in gear and drove off, tires spinning on the loose gravel.
"What business is it of his?" cried Elana. "How could he?"
"I don’t think Mr. Stewart would . . ." began Cody.
"I wouldn’t put it past him," said Elana. "Just be glad you don’t know him – he’s not a nice man."
"But . . . he . . ."
"No, Cody," said Elana severely. "It’s better that I don’t talk about it now. I’d be sure to say something I’d regret later. Let’s just forget about him and take the pies back to the house. How many are left?"
"Four," said Cody quietly, not used to seeing his mom so angry. "I sold two."
"You are such a sweetie, and I love you," she said, giving him a hug. "I’m sorry I got upset. I’m not mad at you, you know."
"I know mom, but I think . . ."
"Shhh. Let’s not worry about those people again. We have to live next door to them, but we don’t have to like them."
"But . . ."
"No buts, honey. Let’s just have a good day. I’ll put the pies into boxes and you take down the sign."
Later Cody went into the kitchen cupboard and found the biggest jar of blackberry jam he could. He put it into a bag and slipped out the back door. Now was not a good time to tell his mom about it, but he had promised Mr. Stewart and been paid for the jam, so he had to deliver it. At bedtime, when she was no longer upset, he’d tell his mom. He hoped he wouldn’t forget this time.
Darien Stewart’s house was much bigger than Cody had expected. He had only seen the gabled roof rising up from the trees at a distance, but now he found himself in a well-manicured garden with big, lush shrubs. The house was white with green trim and a wrap-around porch. He ran along a pathway that followed the perimeter to a set of stairs and a door that appeared to lead to the kitchen. He hesitated and then knocked lightly, and again, a bit more loudly. A young woman opened the door and smiled at him.
"I brought this jam that Mr. Stewart bought."
"Thanks. I’ll see that he gets it," she said as she held out her hand. "Do you need any money for it?"
"No – he already paid me," said Cody returning her smile. He turned and quickly ran back the way he had come as she stood and watched him.
Justie placed the jar of jam on the kitchen table and was about to look for Darien when he walked into the room.
"A cute little boy just dropped this off," she said, indicating the jar.
"Is he gone already? I was hoping to see him."
"He looked like he was in a hurry to go." She eyed her brother suspiciously. "Is he a friend of yours? A new riding student? Or is he selling jam for a Cub fundraiser?"
"He’s our next door neighbour. I actually bought that jam from him as a present for you, and two delicious pumpkin pies as well."
"Doesn’t Mrs. Renton always make us pies for Thanksgiving?"
"Yes, but I couldn’t resist his sales pitch. Besides, he was giving out samples. Don’t tell Mrs. R., but as good as her pies are they just don’t measure up."
"Really?" There was a glint in Justie’s eyes. "Maybe we should just eat them before she finds out they exist – we don’t want her feelings hurt. Got any whipping cream?"
"Right. Shall we heat the pies or eat them cold?"
"We’re going to eat both of them now, by ourselves?"
"It’s called hiding the evidence."
"Mrs. R. won’t be here till Monday – we can save one for tomorrow."
"Okay, but if Lina and Carl come in and want some, don’t expect me to share my half."
"How you manage to stay so skinny the way you eat, I’ll never know."
"You can talk! I’ll whip the cream if you put the pie in the oven."
"So you want it hot, then?" said Darien as he went over to the oven and pressed the buttons. "It’ll take longer."
"I’m prepared to wait," said Justie. "After all, I’ve got this jam to test." She got a loaf of bread out of the cupboard. "You having some too?" At his nod she put two slices in the toaster. "Just like old times." She smiled and pulled herself up to sit on the counter.
"I’ve missed having you around. I’m glad you’re back, even if it was because things didn’t work out for you."
"Water under the bridge. I never should’ve left. I can see that now – but hindsight is always 20/20, isn’t it? Trust me, I’ll meet some new guy and get just as blinded. How about you? Anyone interesting in your life, or just your stalker?"
"Lina’s not that bad, and she’s doing an amazing job with all the equestrian events. You know I can’t be bothered with that end of the business."
"You’re avoiding my question."
"Sorry to disappoint you – my life is as boring as ever."
Just then the toast popped and Justie reached for the butter as Darien got two plates out. She spread both pieces thickly with the jam.
"Blackberry! It’s heavenly. You just don’t get this in the city." She took another huge bite and closed her eyes as she savoured it. "Don’t tell me that little boy made this."
"I think his mom did," said Darien in an off-hand way.
"So, what’s the story there?"
He let out a huge sigh. "She’s not selling the place. Thinks she can clean it up and make it operational."
"She?" Justie looked at him intently.
"Cody’s mom. She’s divorced or something. She’s trying to rebuild the business with just the help of that old hippie who’s been living there. Selling jam and pies. Labouring out there in those ramshackle greenhouses from morning till night, with nothing to show for it. I’ve got to hand it to her – she’s determined as hell but it’s a losing battle. I don’t know what she knows about business but that place is going to kill her."
"I thought you said there was no one interesting in your life right now?"
"What? You’re way off base, Justie. I’ve barely spoken to her, except to tell her off. I think what she’s doing is pointless – she should take my money and run. I’m offering way more than that place is really worth, you know. I just want to get rid of it." He finished his toast and licked his fingers. "She does make good jam, though. Hey, aren’t you supposed to be whipping the cream?"
"Yes," she said as she got out the mixer. "So, what’s her name?"
"The little boy’s mom. The one that’s got you so riled. The one who’s not interesting and not in your life."
"Her name’s Elana, and she’s definitely not in my life."
"I believe you," said Justie, smirking.
They were sitting and eating their pie when Lina tapped at the back door. Justie sighed and gave Darien an ‘I told you so’ look.
"Justie darling!" cried Lina as she burst through the door without waiting for either of them to open it. "How are you? I thought you’d been resting from your trip."
"It’s only a three and a half hour drive on the best road in BC. My Cabrio loved it."
"So you’re back to stay!" She gave Justie a look of deep pity and then continued, attempting to suffuse her voice with empathy. "You poor thing. Don’t worry – I’ll take you out to the best parties and introduce you to some really great guys. It’s like falling off a horse; you have to jump right back on."
"Thanks Lina, but I’m fine. I can’t wait to get back into teaching lessons again."
"I’ve been telling everybody. They are just so excited!"
Lina sat down and began to fill Justie in about her plans for the next meet, and the many social obligations that she had. Darien got another plate and served her a piece of pie, making sure that it was from his half because Justie’s eagle eyes were on him.
"Oh, thank you, Darien," Lina said, turning a flashing smile on him. "I have to tell you about the run in I had earlier today with that hippie who lives next door."
"Sam? He’s an inoffensive old guy. What did he do to bother you?"
"Not him! I wouldn’t be caught dead talking to him. I mean her. Elaine. Remember I told you what she said to me about the jam? That she makes it with stuff that causes cancer in rats? Well, today she was down there in her tacky little stand selling pies, like a little kid. Pathetic. And she came on to me all smart-ass saying that they were full of ingredients that would make me fat and that she would have made some diet pies for me if she knew I wanted some." She took a forkful of her pie and then continued. "As if I’d eat some stinking pie she’d cooked."
"Of course you wouldn’t," said Darien levelly as Justie almost choked in an attempt not to laugh.
"Mrs. R. makes the best pie," said Lina as she finished another mouthful. "Don’t forget to tell her how much I enjoyed it."
"I’ll make a point of it."
"Anyway, I let Elaine have it. I told her you’d call the board of health and have them send inspectors out, and I said you’d report her for not having a business licence. Really, what does she think she is, having that stupid little roadside stand there so close to our place?"
"What gave you the right to tell her I was going to report her?" Darien’s voice had become cold and hard and the laughter had gone from his face.
"Of course you will. She has to be stopped. She’s going to give Stewart Stables a bad name, setting up her airy-fairy business next door. It’s bad enough the trash she has living there, but this is totally unacceptable. Mrs Burke-Lewsen was complaining just the other day about having to drive behind that rusty Volvo as it belched exhaust on her Lexus all the way up Haven Road. You have to do something."
"When I think I have to do something, I will. I don’t want you speaking for me, and I certainly don’t want you telling me what I have to do."
"Darien, sweetheart, I’m not telling you what to do. I’m just giving you some good advice from a business standpoint. Maybe I went overboard a bit, but really! You wouldn’t have taken that nonsense from her yourself!"
"Who has been giving you nonsense, Lina?" asked Carl as he walked into the room. He looked over at Darien. "I rang the doorbell but no one answered, so I let myself in. Figured you’d be in here."
"Oh, you wouldn’t care, Carl," answered Lina. "You like those people."
"If you’re talking about Elana and Joy and Chandra, then you’re right. I do like them and I’m having Thanksgiving dinner with them tomorrow."
"If you want a preview," said Darien, "how about some pumpkin pie? Elana made it. I bought two pies from Cody at the stand today."
The look on Lina’s face was so priceless that it was all Justie could do to stop herself from laughing out loud. She didn’t even comment when Carl cut a large piece from her side of the pie.
Lina turned to her brother and, with less control than she’d used earlier, repeated her entire conversation with Elana leaving no doubt as to her feelings.
As he was being tucked into bed, Cody suddenly remembered that he had something important to tell his mother.
"Mom, you know those two pies I sold today?"
"Yes sweetie, that was just great," said Elana as she sat on the bed and brushed his hair back from his forehead.
"Well, the person who bought them was Mr. Stewart."
"What?" asked Elana in surprise. She began to feel the resentment from earlier in the day rise again. "What’s he doing buying my pies? Planning on taking them in for analysis?"
"Mom, I don’t think he’d do that. He’s nice. He told me to tell you that you’re a good cook."
"He said that? He tasted the pie?"
"I was giving out samples. He really liked it."
"Well, I’m sorry honey, but I don’t trust him. You know what his girlfriend said – that he was going to report me."
"Is that scary lady really his girlfriend?"
"Probably. She’s always over there and he deserves her. Anyway, don’t worry about it. I’m proud of you selling the pies regardless of who bought them." She leaned over and kissed him on the forehead. "Have a sweet night. Don’t let the bedbugs bite."
Cody put his arms around her neck and hugged her. "I put all the bedbugs in your bed," he teased. This wasn’t the right time to tell her about the jam or ask about riding lessons. He didn’t really understand why she’d been so upset earlier and why she didn’t like Mr. Stewart, but he knew it had something to do with the time he’d yelled at her about the fire. Cody had to admit to having been sort of scared that day himself, but when he’d met Mr. Stewart again the man was friendly. He didn’t like to see his mom worried; she worked so hard all the time and he wanted her to be happy. When she got to know Mr. Stewart better she’d see that he was nice – the thing would be for them to talk to each other without getting mad. That stick lady with the weird hair was just causing problems.
Thanksgiving dinner was a united effort. Sam and Cody decorated the table with a basket spilling over with red and yellow maple leaves, decorative gourds, and Indian corn. The three girls worked on the feast together and Joy also made a special effort in getting the house to look just perfect. By 5:30 she was very obviously nervous, fiddling with the place settings and napkin holders and plumping up the throw pillows on the couch for the umpteenth time. When the doorbell rang she rushed into the kitchen and urged Cody to go and open the door.
"But you were just in the living room," said Cody as Chandra and Elana snickered at Joy. He ran to get the door anyway while Joy tried to convince one of the other girls to join her in the living room.
"I’m still making the gravy," Elana said.
"Have to drain the Brussels sprouts," said Chandra. "Very serious business. Get in there – you’re the one he wants to see."
Joy went into the living room to see Cody introducing Carl Bingham to Smeagol. Carl looked up and smiled and the kitten in his arms was forgotten until it climbed up his sweater to perch on his shoulder.
Joy reached for the kitten. "I hope he’s not being a pest," she said.
"Not at all."
He bent his head forward as Smeagol crawled around the back of his neck, out of the way of Joy’s hand. She reached with her other hand to get the kitten as he made his way onto Carl’s shoulder, but suddenly stopped when she realised she almost had her arms around his neck. They both giggled and then Carl reached up and plucked the kitten from his back. Joy helped extricate the claws that didn’t want to give up their hold of the wool. He placed the kitten in her hands as his warm eyes held hers. She smiled shyly and then put the kitten on the couch.
"I’m glad you were able to come."
"I am too. Dinner smells delicious and the room looks wonderful – so do you."
"Thanks," said Joy, colouring lightly, and offered him a seat. "That’s a really nice sweater you’re wearing. I hope the kitten didn’t snag it."
"It wouldn’t matter if he did."
Cody was distracted from watching this interesting exchange by the doorbell ringing again. This time it was Sam who had gone home to dress up for dinner. He was now wearing his best jeans and a new denim shirt with a rust coloured tie.
"Well aren’t you all spiffed up!" said Chandra to Sam as she came from the kitchen. She greeted Carl and then continued, "We need someone to carve up the bird. Which of you gentlemen want to do the honours?"
Carl offered, saying that he didn’t often get the chance. "I always spend Thanksgiving and Christmas with Darien and his family and he never lets me do it. You don’t know how thrilled I am to have been invited here today. First I get to enjoy all your lovely company, then I get to have an extra turkey dinner, which is my favourite, and now I get to carve. A dream come true."
"You’re having dinner at the Stewart’s tomorrow?" said Chandra. "I’m going to dinner with my family in Comox, and Joy’s going to her aunt’s. It’s great that Elana decided to do hers today instead. Of course by Tuesday we’ll all be a size larger and won’t fit any of our clothes."
"That’s a chance I’m willing to take," said Carl.
After dinner they sat around the table for quite some time just talking and laughing, then Carl insisted that he and Sam and Cody would do the dishes while the girls put away all the leftovers. When that was done Carl built a fire in the fireplace while Sam went home to fetch his guitar. They sang old favourites as Sam and Carl took turns strumming. Before they knew it, it was 9:30, and Elana got up to put the kettle on and warm up the pies. Chandra offered to help with the tea and coffee and to whip the cream, leaving Sam behind teaching Cody a few easy chords, and Joy and Carl sitting side by side on the couch talking softly and gazing into the fire. When Elana eventually handed around the desert, Carl suddenly remembered something he’d been meaning to tell her.
"I want to apologise for my sister."
Elana looked at him, confused. "Your sister?"
"Yes. I was at Darien’s yesterday and she told me what she’d said to you in the afternoon."
"The woman in the silver BMW is your sister?" asked Elana.
"I’m sorry – I didn’t realise she’d never introduced herself to you. Yes, she is. She works at the stables and gets quite . . . overprotective where Darien is concerned. What she said to you was completely out of line. I hope you don’t think Darien had anything to do with it – he was just as angry as I was when he found out what she’d said to you."
"See, mom! I told you," piped up Cody.
"He has no intentions of reporting you to anybody," said Carl. "I don’t know what got into Lina or why she thought she had to say those things, but there’s no foundation to them. I’m really sorry she was so rude to you."
"Don’t worry about what your sister said." Elana took a sip of her tea and then looked Carl in the eye. "I think that I set her off with my own remarks. She’d said something that got my back up another day and I was being reactive. You have nothing to be sorry about. And thanks for telling me that Darien Stewart isn’t about to report me for anything. It really eases my mind, though I don’t think I’ve done anything illegal, have I?"
"I think what you are doing right now is on such a small scale that you don’t need a business licence, but you’ll have to get one in the future, when you start production in the greenhouses."
"Of course," said Elana.
"By the way, I have to admit that this isn’t the first time I’ve tasted your delicious pie," said Carl. "When I walked in on Darien and his sister and Lina yesterday, they were all enjoying it around the kitchen table."
"Your sister was eating my pie?"
"By the look on her face when Darien told me you made it, I don’t think she knew it was yours," said Carl with a laugh.
Later that night as Elana lay in bed she recalled what Carl had said and how she had laughed until tears were streaming down her face. What poetic justice! Then she sobered a bit as she thought of Darien Stewart. She had misjudged him a bit – she was forced to admit it. She had been ready to believe the worst of him, but he’d only bought the pies to eat, and he’d enjoyed them. She felt a little thrill of pleasure, as if she’d proved something to him. But she knew that by selling jars of jam and pumpkin pies she still really hadn’t accomplished anything, and Carl’s sister Lina had really brought that home to her. She had to stop Mickey Mousing around with little projects and concentrate on the big picture. The next step was going to be a huge one, but she had to decide what direction she’d take the business in. There was going to be no room for error – the way she saw it she had only one chance to prove herself. She was going to make a go of it if it was the last thing she did, and Darien Stewart was going to eat crow.
Thanksgiving Day was a quiet one for Elana and Cody. They spent the morning relaxing about the house in their pyjamas and then, after a lunch of turkey sandwiches, they went outdoors. While Cody ran around taking his kitten on a guided tour of the place, Elana wandered through the greenhouses trying to come up with a decision of what she was going to grow. When Bennet Thompson had run the business he had grown a wide variety of flowering shrubs, ground covers, perennials, hedging materials, vines and trees. In short about everything that one could find in a garden centre. Elana felt daunted by the idea of growing so many diverse plants that she knew nothing about. The climate here was so mild compared to what she had been used to in both Ontario and Nova Scotia that she was completely unfamiliar with most of the varieties commonly grown. She had to keep the business on a smaller scale and more specialised so that she didn’t find herself in way over her head.
In the evening her family phoned and it did Elana good to talk to everybody, especially her father. He listened to her concerns about the business and advised her to do some intensive research and then follow whichever avenue she thought most promising and felt the most comfortable with. He also convinced her that if she wanted to succeed she would have to go to the bank and get a line of credit and not try to do it on a shoestring budget.
The next week Elana spent at the library and touring all the local nurseries from Parksville to Campbell River. She tried to get a feel of what was working for other people, where the market was saturated, whether there was an area where she could fill a need that wasn't being met locally, and what she could do with little expertise that would not take years to develop. At night she often found herself disillusioned and almost ready to give up, but in the morning her determination always reasserted itself. It only took a glance at the Stewart Stables sign as she was driving Cody to school to firm her resolve once more and begin to think with her usual optimism.
On Saturday Elana was glad to take a break from facts and figures and clear her head on the soccer field. The morning was bright, but with a chill wind. She was amazed at how the boys could run about in their shorts and thin jerseys while she had her jacket zipped all the way up and her scarf wrapped around her ears. They were short of substitutes and Cody was on for the entire first half, which he thought was much preferable to sitting upon a pile of soccer balls on the sidelines and freezing. He came off at the half tired but excited. They were ahead two goals to nil and he had been involved in the play that led to one of the goals. As he chattered eagerly, Elana wrapped him in his jacket to keep him warm and urged him to put his track pants on.
"I’ll just have to take them off again in two minutes, Mom. I’m fine. You’re a wuss to be cold!"
"Where do you get off calling your mother a wuss?" said Colin Fox as he approached them. There was a pretty young woman with him.
Elana was glad that Chandra had not come – she had developed a bit of a crush on Colin and would have been disappointed to see him with somebody. Well, more than a bit of a crush, really. She was forever offering to drive Cody to his soccer practices and usually stayed to watch. This was the first game she had missed, but the girl who worked Saturday mornings at the café had called in sick.
"Elana, I wanted you to meet my cousin Justie. She’s just come back to town after living in Victoria for a few years." Colin introduced them and then looked around. "Where’s Cody’s surrogate mom?"
"She had to work," said Elana, smiling at the thought of how Chandra would feel when she found out she had been missed. When she noticed Justie’s bemused expression she explained who Chandra really was. Colin stayed and talked with them for a minute then took Cody away for a team meeting to plan second half strategies.
"So, have you moved back here, or are you just visiting?" asked Elana.
"I’m here for good," said Justie. "Victoria is a beautiful city but, to tell you the truth, I really missed the Comox Valley and my family. I’m excited to get back to work, too. Actually that’s one of the things I wanted to talk to you about."
"Yes?" said Elana, wondering what Colin’s cousin could possibly have to say to her about work. She couldn’t imagine that the girl wanted a job at the greenhouses. By the way she was dressed, she seemed to be very well to do. Besides, Colin obviously had money and connections.
"Well . . . I give riding lessons and I heard that your son was interested in learning how to ride."
"He is?" asked Elana. "Did Colin tell you? Cody hasn’t mentioned it to me, but he’s always wanting to do everything. You know kids. A couple of weeks ago he was bugging me for a goat."
Justie laughed. "I understand he’s very eager. And Colin tells me he’s a hard worker and a quick learner."
"He is," said Elana, warmed by the praise. "And actually soccer is the only thing he’s registered in right now. He would have the time for riding lessons if he’s really interested, but I don’t know if I could afford them . . . and we don’t have a horse."
"There are horses available for the kids that don’t have them, and maybe we could work something out to reduce the cost if Cody was interested in helping around the stable."
Elana thanked her and said she’d ask Cody about it after the game. They watched the rest of the second half together, talking about the plays and cheering excitedly when Cody took a big shot that went off the cross bar. When the final whistle blew he came running off the field grinning.
"Did you see that? It was so close. I almost had my first goal!"
"It was a wonderful shot, buddy."
"I put a bit too much into it," he admitted.
"Hey, why didn’t you tell me you’re interested in learning how to ride horses? I had to hear about it from a stranger," Elana teased.
Cody blushed. "I don’t know . . . I guess I thought you wouldn’t let me . . . but I really do want to learn."
"Honey, you know if there’s something you really want I’m always open to talk about it."
"I know, Mom. It’s just . . . you’ve been so busy lately and it never seems like the right time to ask you."
"If it means so much to you, and you are willing to work hard at it, Justie here has an offer for you. She teaches riding and she says we might be able to get cheaper lessons if you do some chores around the stables."
Cody’s entire face lit up. "Really?"
"Yes," Justie answered. "I could use an assistant."
"I’m afraid Cody has no experience around horses at all," said Elana.
"That doesn’t matter," said Justie. She turned to Cody. "You know how to use a shovel, right? And I’ll teach you how to brush the horses down and show you where to hang the tack. Nothing could be more simple."
"How much are lessons?" asked Elana.
"Private lessons are forty dollars for forty-five minutes, but I also give kids group lessons, four to a group. They run twenty dollars a session, twenty-five if you rent a horse. I have a beginner group starting up next week so he’d fit right in." She noticed the disappointed expressions on both Elana and Cody’s faces. "Don’t worry, he can work most of it off."
"That’s so nice of you to make the offer," said Elana. "You’ve only just met us."
"I hate to see a kid miss out on something he really cares about," said Justie. "So, what do you say? Shall we give it a go?"
Cody looked up at his mom beseechingly. "Please?"
"I guess so," said Elana, "but you can’t let your homework or other chores slide because you’re shovelling out stalls all afternoon."
"He won’t have to do too much work," said Justie.
"That’s great. So when are the lessons?"
"Tuesdays at three-thirty, but Cody could come by right after school if he wants and I’ll show him around the stable and explain his jobs to him."
"Sure, I could drop him off on the way home. Where is your stable?"
"Oh . . . it’s right next door to you. Stewart Stables. Didn’t you know? I’m Darien Stewart’s sister."
Elana just stood there with her mouth open as images ran before her eyes. She remembered seeing Darien at that first game, watching him talk to Colin, noticing the similarity between them. Justie was Darien’s sister? She was so friendly, so open, so unlike him. Now that she knew, she could see a resemblance about the eyes. Justie’s were grey too, but instead of piercing into her they were full of warmth and humour.
In a daze Elana said goodbye to Justie and took Cody to the car. She drove home in silence, all the time thinking, ‘What have I done? I’ve agreed to send my son over there. What if . . .’ They were half way down Headquarters Road when Cody finally spoke up.
"Can I still get to take the lessons, Mom?"
Elana looked over at him. His face was white and drawn. She pulled the car off to the side of the road and put it in park. Taking him in her arms, she hugged him tightly and kissed his forehead. "Of course you can, hon," she said.
That Sunday, after much discussion with Joy and Chandra and exhaustive sessions in Chandra’s room exploring the web, Elana came to a decision about her business. She would grow hanging baskets and bedding plants. It was the quickest, simplest, and most cost effective product she could think of. She investigated sources for seeds and cuttings, and determined logistics for volume and greenhouse use. Two greenhouses would need to be heated, to be used for propagation. Those would need double plastic, fans, and propane heaters. The other four would be used for housing the baskets and flats of bedding plants after they had been potted up. They would only need single plastic. She would have to order heater cables, lumber, potting soil, flats, plant trays, baskets, rooting hormones, fertilisers, hoses, misters, landscape fabric . . . the list grew longer and longer.
She spent another week working late into the night calculating quantities and costs, deciding on seeds and cuttings, planning growing schedules. Her calculations showed that she had to have the two heated greenhouses and cutting benches ready for November. She placed a large order for fuchsia and ivy geranium cuttings, which needed to be planted for rooting right away. Joy and Chandra helped her decide on a selection of varieties, then they delved into the seed catalogues, ordered lobelia, impatiens, pansies, marigolds, petunias, fibrous begonias, pelargoniums . . . the list seemed never ending.
Supplies began to arrive and Elana and Sam were busy building the potting and cutting benches and installing plastic pipes and hoses. Technicians from the power company replaced the electric lines out to the greenhouses. The propane heaters were installed, and finally, on November first, a crew came and replaced the plastic on all the greenhouses. Dennis helped Sam and Elana do the plastic on the ends of the greenhouses and put up the doors. The finishing touch was the sign they erected out by the road. Joy had designed and painted it. There was a brightly coloured bird flying up from the ground, reborn. Above it arced the words Phoenix Nursery.
From where Darien sat in his study, he could have been able to oversee all the work done on the greenhouses next door, if he had so chosen. But besides all the business that pertained to the stables, he had a novel to write. The sight of Elana carting lumber, hammering, and digging trenches for water pipes was much too distracting. It seemed there was nothing she wasn’t willing to do to get the job done. He couldn’t help but admire her work ethic and her determination. He snorted at the idea of Lina getting herself dirty, or even trying to dig a shovel into the ground.
His character, Lanea, started to become more physically adept. At times he found it difficult to separate the two. Who was Elana and who was Lanea? Both were fiercely independent and staunchly loyal. Both were strong, vital, resourceful. Both were lithe, nimble, and surprisingly attractive. Both were . . . no, he really had no idea who Elana was, inside. He didn’t know about her intelligence, her spontaneity, her sense of humour. He didn’t know what books she read, what music she liked, what made her happy or sad. He didn’t know anything about her but what he saw for himself out his window, and what he remembered from his two brief encounters with her. He decided that he was becoming obsessed, and it worried him. He had to get out more.
He moved his desk so that instead of being under the window that faced west, across her property, he now looked out over the neat corrals and onto the road. He limited his writing times to the evenings and sat, typing, late into the night. But he often found he had to dispel the urge to glance out that west facing window, even in the dead of night when there was nothing to see but the dark shadows of trees and the silver glow of the moon upon the transluscent greenhouse roofs.
He spent much more time exercising and training the horses that he bred, but invariably he was accompanied by Lanea who would morph with unexpected suddenness into his next-door neighbour just at the ring of a hammer or the smell of a branch of pine crushed underfoot. On one such occasion he headed with his horse to the big arena where Justie gave her lessons. He needed the type of conversation that his horses could not provide. Something to drive a little sanity back into his brain. He was spending way too much time on his own these days. That was the cause of these aberrant thoughts.
The lessons were over and she wasn’t in either the outdoor or the indoor ring. He walked up the left hallway and checked the twelve by twelve box stalls that ran along the side and opened onto large run-ins. Most of them were empty, the horses outside in the turn out pens. He checked the tack room and there he discovered Cody hanging up a bridle.
"Hello there! Are you on the payroll now?" he asked.
Cody grinned. "I’m getting riding lessons."
"He’s my personal slave," said Justie, coming out from a locker.
"I hear you’re becoming quite a good rider," said Darien.
"I’ve only had a few lessons so I’m not good yet, but it’s fun."
"Don’t be so modest, Cody," said Justie. "You’re my star pupil. I’m gonna put you on all my posters." She winked at him.
"I actually came to see if you wanted to ride with me, Justie, but I see you’re still busy."
"We’re all done. I was just going to walk Cody home."
"I’ll do that while you saddle the Pontiac."
Justie stuck her tongue out at him and turned to Cody. "Don’t listen to him. My horse is not called Pontiac. She’s called Firebird after a bird in one of my favourite books, not some stupid macho car. Would you mind if he takes you home?"
"That’d be cool."
"See," said Darien. "He thinks I’m cool."
"He just knows you’ve got Phantom with you and he wants a ride," said Justie.
"Would you like to ride him?" asked Darien.
"Okay, but I’ll lead him like last time. He’s a little too big for you to ride on your own yet."
They went outside of the building to where Phantom was waiting, his reins loosely wound around a railing. Darien helped Cody up into the saddle and then led the horse down the drive and along the street to Cody’s driveway, chatting as they went.
"I usually run up my driveway on my own," said Cody.
"Okay," said Darien. "That looks great. Who painted it, your mom?" He pointed at the newly erected sign. By this time he suspected that she was capable of almost anything.
Cody laughed. "She can’t paint that well! Joy did it – she’s an artist. Isn’t the bird awesome? Do you think it’s something like the one Justie named her horse after?"
"I’m not sure what a firebird really looks like. It’s magical, not mythical like a phoenix, but I guess they’re similar because they are both survivors."
He was about to help Cody out of the saddle when he heard the crunch of footsteps on the newly gravelled drive and turned to see Elana coming towards them. It seemed there was no escaping her, and this time she was no manifestation of his mind. He felt his blood rush a bit faster and he attempted to greet her without letting her see that her presence affected him in any way.
"Hi," he said rather stiffly. "We were just admiring your sign."
"Thanks," she answered, and then she tentatively reached out to stroke Phantom’s neck, and looked even further up at her son. "Isn’t this horse much too big for you? If I knew you were riding . . . it looks quite dangerous."
"No, mom. This is Mr. Stewart’s horse."
Darien saw the concern in her eyes, and something more. She was annoyed. "All the horses we use for our lessons are a suitable size and very good tempered and trustworthy. You don’t need to worry about Cody’s safety."
"I’m sure the lesson horses are fine because I trust Justie’s judgement, but I don’t like him being on your horse. You can’t tell me you ride a slug."
"No. He has a lot of spirit, but he’s good with children, and I am in control, not Cody."
"You are standing here on the side of the road, barely holding onto the reins. What if someone were to drive by suddenly and spook him?"
"Phantom is level headed – he doesn’t spook easily."
"Cody, I want you to get down right now."
"I was just about to help him . . ." said Darien, reaching up to grasp Cody under the arms and toss him down.
"I don’t want him on your horse ever again."
"But, mom! I was fine."
"That’s okay, Cody. If your mom doesn’t want you on Phantom that’s her decision. I’ll see you later."
Darien nodded to Elana and led Phantom away. As soon as he was at his own driveway he got up into the saddle and rode back to meet Justie, wishing all the while that he had handled the situation better. Why did it always have to be a confrontation when he met her? She had somehow put him on the defensive and he hadn’t been able to regain his ground. His quick burst of anger had already dissipated. She didn’t know horses – he couldn’t expect her to have the same confidence in Phantom that he had. To her he was big and powerful and somewhat intimidating. To him, Phantom was a friend.
Cody and Elana walked back to the house together.
"Why was he bringing you home anyway?"
"So Justie could saddle her horse. They are going out riding."
Elana didn’t answer. She was trying to bring herself under control. Somehow anything that man did got under her skin.
"He didn’t do anything wrong, Mom. He was just being nice to me – he knew I wanted to ride Phantom."
"I’m sorry buddy, but seeing you on that horse so high above me really freaked me out."
"I know, Mom," said Cody quietly.
Elana stopped and grabbed hold of him and held him close. "I guess I overreacted again," she said as she let him go. "Race you to the house."
"I’ll waste you!" he said as he started running.
Cody arrived at the steps a few paces before Elana and they both collapsed on the porch out of breath and giggling.
Even though the plastic had been replaced on the greenhouses there was still an incredible amount of work to do before Elana would be ready to receive and plant the cuttings that she had ordered. The fans for the heated greenhouses were on backorder and would not arrive for another week. The potting and cutting benches were not ready – the installation of the hoses had taken much longer and had caused much more trouble than expected. And when the benches for the cuttings were finished all the heating cables had to be run across them. Elana found that if she just took one day at a time and did not look at the big picture, she wasn’t quite as overwhelmed by the amount of work she had still to do. If it wasn’t for Dennis coming every day she knew that she and Sam would never be ready on time.
In addition to this there was her continued concern about Cody’s developing friendship with him – Darien Stewart. From things he let slip it was apparent that Cody had some kind of contact with Stewart on most of his lesson days. She was still furious with the man for allowing her son on his horse. That had not occurred again, nor had he brought him home since that first time, but he often stopped and talked to Cody as he passed by the stables and the look in Cody’s eyes when he mentioned him frightened her. She knew that though Cody was happy with her, he really did miss having a masculine figure in his life. His open admiration of Colin Fox proved how much a male role model meant to him, and though his regard for Darien Stewart was more guarded, Elana sensed that it was somehow stronger. She did not mind at all that he idolised Colin Fox, but her neighbour was another matter. Perversely she felt that if she did not like him, her son shouldn’t either. As she worked, conflicting thoughts continually revolved in her head – she wished she had never agreed to the riding lessons though it was a pleasure to see Cody’s face light up every time he spoke of them.
It was the middle of November – the greenhouses were finally ready, and the cuttings were arriving first thing in the morning. Elana was bone tired. She upended her wheelbarrow on the rubbish heap and looked about her. A huge jack-o-lantern grinning from the compost pile took her by surprise in the waning light and set her heart beating rapidly. As she stood, trying to calm herself, she realised that Halloween had come and gone and had barely even registered upon her. Sam had sold most of his pumpkins to classes of primary school children who had come to the pumpkin patch the last week of October while she had been digging and hammering, totally oblivious to anything else that was going on around her. Chandra had made Cody’s costume. Joy and Carl had helped carve the pumpkin and taken Cody out trick or treating. She steeled herself and stared back at the ghoulish face that appeared to be rising out of the mouldering compost.
“Thanks,” she said. “It took a pumpkin-head like you to tell me that I’ve been neglecting my kid.” It was little wonder all she heard from him was Mr. Fox this or Mr. Stewart that.
She almost ran back to the house, wheelbarrow bouncing and jarring through ruts and potholes as she went. Elana washed up in the laundry sink and pulled off her coveralls, hanging them on a hook.
In the kitchen Joy was cooking supper. She turned around from the stove and smiled.
“You look exhausted. The pasta’s almost ready – I know you must be hungry – Sam says you didn’t stop for lunch.”
“He’ll be back soon. Chandra’s picking him up from soccer practice, remember? They’re always a little late . . . getting those two away from Colin Fox is like . . .” She searched for a suitable metaphor.
“I think Colin exacerbates the problem,” said Elana as she took the rotini that Joy held out to her and tasted it to see if it was done. “Al dente, perfecto! He loves the attention.”
The front door burst open and running feet clattered upon the hardwood. Cody’s excited face appeared in the kitchen doorway. “Mom! I got chosen to do corner kicks! Mr Fox said I’ve got the best left foot on the team.” He was just about bouncing up and down.
“That’s wonderful, honey, but you’ve still got your cleats on don’t you?”
“Oops. Sorry mom.” Cody sat down and pulled at his laces. “I just wanted to tell you so badly.”
“Hey, what’re these huge gouges on the living room floor,” cried Chandra as she came into the house. “You little melon head!”
Cody’s face turned white.
“She’s only joking, silly,” said Elana as she crouched down to help him off with his shoes. “Now go and get changed. Supper’s ready. You can tell me all about it while we eat and I promise to listen to every word. I’m really proud of you.” She tousled his hair before he ran to his room.
The rest of November Elana worked just as hard. There were hundreds of cuttings to be dipped in rooting hormones and planted into flats while Sam worked at getting the other four greenhouses in order, levelling beds, building benches, and running wires across for hanging all the baskets on in the spring. There was no end of work to be done, but Elana stopped her workday when Cody came home from school, always walked him to and from his riding lessons, and took over all the soccer driving duties she had given up even though Chandra wasn’t very thrilled with the idea.
“How’m I ever going to convince the guy I was made for him if he never sees me again?” she complained.
“I thought absence made the heart grow fonder,” said Elana, laughing.
“Look, I’m dying here!”
“So, maybe he’ll call you. He knows the number.”
“He did ask me if you were coming to the next game,” Cody piped up.
“You’re not just saying that to make me feel good?”
Chandra grabbed Cody and whirled him around by his arms. Elana stood back and watched, her smile growing. It didn’t matter that once Cody was in bed she would be back out in the greenhouse planting cuttings by the weak light cast by a dangling bulb. Her afternoons with Cody made all the intensive work bearable.
hadn’t failed to notice the soft light shining through the trees every night for the past two weeks. It made him think of those Soul Asylum lyrics, your dim light shines from so far away*, and that didn’t make it any easier. That song was about things not working out – not reassuring by any means. He was still haunted by the very thought of her and trying hard to ignore the fact. The only time he really let it overtake him was each night while he was writing, and then Lanea would take shape under his fingers and fly freely as he pounded on the keyboard, taking all those withheld thoughts and creating vibrant, evocative images that he knew had nothing to do with Elana at all - though she, it seemed, was destined to be his muse, whether he wanted it that way or not. Darien
What she would think of it, he had no idea. He’d seen her a few times, mostly from a distance, when she’d picked Cody up from his lessons. Once he’d even been in the barn when she was there and had nodded to her as he hung his tack upon a peg. She’d glanced his way and then said something to Cody, her eyes warm with affection as they’d rested on her son. He hadn’t had another opportunity to speak to her, but after their encounter in her driveway he could only think that it was a good thing.
Despite himself, he got up from his desk and walked over to the window and watched the unsteady glow that came from the greenhouse. His light, too, must be shining through the trees, visible to anyone who was looking – but nobody was looking. He returned to his computer.
The light shifted and she had to adjust her eyes to the darkness once more. But she knew it was shining from the hill. She knew she had to get there. She didn’t know how or why, but she was drawn inexorably. Her blade met vine, stem, rock as she hacked her path. The hillside shifted and changed before her. Elusive. Always hiding what she was after – and yet she could not stop. It was a stronger power that called her and she could not resist though her arm grew weary and her blade dull.
The Christmas craft fair opened on Friday, December third, at the Filberg Centre. The clatter of Joy’s loom had been heard almost constantly for most of November. She’d reduced her hours at Superstore and concentrated on her craft. Chandra and Elana spent the afternoons knotting and twisting fringes on scarves and even Cody made himself useful, helping set up Joy’s bobbins when she wound a new warp upon her sectional beam, and keeping Smeagol away from the yarns as she threaded them through the heddles. He loved to watch her weave, the steady rhythm of shuttle and beater, the pump of the treadles and clack of the harnesses as they flew up and down, heddles rattling softly. He loved to watch the cloth grow and stretch over the breast beam, and down around the thick cloth beam as her knees steadily rose and fell.
Besides scarves she wove shawls, blankets, hangings, pillows, runners and place mats in silks, wools, and cottons. Some she hand dyed; some had painted warps, ikat, double weave, tapestry. Colours ranged from muted and mellow to vibrant, fiery hues and deep, dark indigos.
All day Friday they set up her booth, using screens, tables, baskets and an antique hallstand on which to display her wares. Tiny fairy lights were threaded all around on strategically placed twisting branches. At 5:45 Joy stood back for the umpteenth time to survey the effect.
“I think it’s ready.”
“It’s about time,” said Chandra. “Doors open at six.”
“It looks lovely,” said Elana, who had come for the tail end of the set up, after she’d picked Cody up from school and run a few errands. “Now go and change quickly if you’re going to, or meet your first customers in faded jeans and a dusty sweatshirt.
“Oh!” cried Joy, and she grabbed her bag from behind her chair and ran for the washroom.
“Wait for me,” cried Chandra. “I’m sure I look like I’ve been dragged through hell’s half acres.”
“I’ll look after the stall, don’t worry,” said Elana.
The first night of the fair was almost a society occasion, it was such a popular event. As the doors opened and people began to filter in Elana realised that they were not only there to look at and buy quality crafts by the best island artisans, they were also there to see and be seen. All the craftspeople had to have their work accepted by a jury in order to rent a booth for the week-long event. The booths were large and well set out in the spacious hall. At one end was a café with wrought iron tables, but for opening night, drinks and hors d’oeuvres were being passed around on trays by servers dressed in chic black. She hadn’t really expected it to be quite so dressy and she hoped she didn’t look too dowdy in her simple grey skirt and sage green shirt. None of that bothered Cody at all – he just wanted to eat a few sausage rolls and go to the booth that sold hand tooled leather belts with scabbards and replicas of Frodo’s dagger, Sting.
“They’re not sharp at all Mom, c’mon – I’ll show you.”
She smiled in assent, and when Joy and Chandra returned she followed Cody as he led her through the growing crowds and between the rows of booths to the place in question. There was no doubt that the craftsmanship was superb, or that the daggers were solely for ornamentation, but the prices were well beyond Elana’s means, so they only looked. And as Cody dreamed Elana allowed herself to be distracted by a booth that sold wonderful soaps with delicate, natural fragrances. As she reached for a goats’ milk and aloe soap a low voice spoke beside her.
“No, try this one. Bergamot.”
While she instinctively reached for the smooth greenish bar, she raised her eyes up. She’d recognised the voice. Darien Stewart was looking down at her with an unreadable expression on his face. She took the soap and raised it to her nose, breathing in the tangy fragrance. How did he know I like bergamot? It was hard for her to put it down, but she did. She picked up the aloe one and sniffed it, but the scent didn’t even register.
“What do you think?” he asked.
Did he really care? “They both smell very nice,” she said, not wanting to commit herself at all.
He picked up the goats’ milk and aloe one and smelled it carefully. “I think I can still smell the goat,” he said.
Despite herself, she laughed. “Let me see that.” He placed it in her hand and she gave it another sniff. “I can’t even smell the aloe, let alone a goat,” she said.
“Well, it probably tastes like goat then.”
“I wasn’t planning on eating the soap, though sometimes I wonder. Look at this – passionfruit, kiwi, melon. I’m wondering where the wasabe one is.”
“Try that green one over there.”
“It’s only lettuce. But this one smells good. Ginger.”
He took it from her. “A little sharp - like the root, not like gingerbread.”
“More like ginger beer.”
“Are you buying soap?” The new voice was throaty and provocative. “For me?”
Lina Leaned up against
and attempted to sniff the bar he still held. Her hair was a more brilliant russet than usual and she wore a slinky, silver dress that dipped deeply in both front and back. Her voice had surprised Elana who had never heard her sound other than imperious and shrill. She bit back a grin and was about to turn and look for Cody when Lina noticed her. The look of contempt she received plainly said she did not belong. Darien
“I was just looking,” he said, “but if you’re interested in soap, you might like to buy this one.” He pointed at the aloe and goats’ milk soap.
By this time the craftsperson had finished with a customer and came over to try and make a sale. “It’s very good for the complexion, especially if you have allergies or delicate skin,” she said, and went on to explain all the benefits of the soap.
Elana was surprised by
’s remark after the conversation they’d already had about the soap. Why would he steer his girlfriend to a soap he apparently did not like? She picked up a soap at random and said, “What about this one?” Darien
“Rose geranium?” asked Lina scornfully, her normal tone back in her voice. “I suppose it appeals to little country girls – but I’m buying the one
suggested.” She handed the goats’ milk soap over to the vendor and smiled up at Darien . Darien
“I’ll take the Rose Geranium one for my sister. It’s just the kind she likes,” said
, looking straight ahead. He waited till Lina’s purchase was finished and then placed the pale pink soap on the counter, along with the ginger one he still held. Darien
Elana excused herself and turned to look for Cody who had luckily only wandered to the next booth where they were making chocolate truffles. She had found the whole exchange about the soaps rather confusing and was happy to be with Cody who was straightforward and uncomplicated. He wanted chocolate – that was very easy to understand. She bought enough for them to share with Joy and Chandra, and then they continued looking at the various crafts on their way back through the fair.
watched her walk off and meet Cody, then keep going without a backward glance. Darien
“Still slumming?” came the sultry voice in his ear. “Her Volvo would look great in your garage – or maybe you two should use her place. The old hippie could give her away at the wedding, and if you could ever get the kid to wear something without holes in the knees he could be the ring bearer . . .”
“Really Lina, sometimes you’re completely encyclopaedic in your ignorance.”
She stared at him, unsure of the meaning of what he had just said, but thinking that it might not be complimentary, she decided to change her tactics. “I know I’m going to love that soap you recommended,” she said, pulling on his arm. “Let’s go find Carl.”
As he followed after her she reflected that it was probably just a coincidence that he had been talking to that . . . that nobody. After all, Elaine, or whatever her name was, was dressed so plainly and her hair was so . . . unstyled – there was no way he’d gone up to her on purpose. Nothing to worry about. But she’d almost blown it over the soap. How was she to know that Justie liked that kind?
wasn’t thinking of soap at all. He’d actually forgotten that it was there in his pocket. He was picturing Lanea in a sage green tunic, smelling of lemon and ginger. When they ran into Justie at a pottery booth he almost didn’t even see her. Darien
“Justie honey,” crooned Lina, “guess where we just were? Buying you some soap! Rose geranium – your favourite – I helped
choose it.” Darien
“I guess you could say that,” said
as he snapped back to the here and now. “Are you looking at raku pots, Justie?” Darien
“Yes. There’s some here I really think you’ll like,” she said, leading him into the stall.
Lina was left standing on her own. She looked around and saw some friends across the room, flashed them an empty smile, and then affected a deep interest in raku.
Two hours later, when Elana took Cody back to view the daggers one last time before going home, she found herself in front of the soap booth again. The bergamot soap was in her hand and she was buying it. She wasn’t sure exactly how it had happened.
* Promises Broken, Soul Asylum
When the phone rang, Elana almost tripped over Smeagol as she ran for the counter to put her groceries down before grabbing it. It was the old lady from the curio shop. She’d found a bed, dresser and wardrobe she believed were just what Elana was looking for.
“I took one look at it,” she said, her voice thin and fervent, “and I saw a vision of butter yellow walls, and a carpet in deep greens and russets, and then I thought of you . . . are you still there?”
Elana had sunk to the floor with her back against the wall – she could not remember having given the lady so much detail. “I . . . yes, I’m here. Just surprised.”
“Well, I hardly expected it myself when I walked into the man’s barn. He had a number of other items that I bought for the store, but I left the bedroom furniture so that you could buy it from him directly, dear. I’ll just give you his number – he lives out Merville way. I’m sure you know someone with a truck.”
“Yes – thank you. I’ll just get a pen.”
When Elana finally hung up the phone she was shaking her head, partly in disbelief, partly in mystification. The lady had rambled on about the timelessness of oak, how furniture held a history that could be read by touch, how the wood glowed in the weak winter sun that filtered through the barn door, how it had whispered to her of happy times in the past and the hopes of more to come. How she knew when she saw it where it belonged. Her last words still echoed in Elana’s mind. I see you and your little daughter lying against the pillows laughing. “But . . . I don’t have a daughter,” Elana had responded. No, not yet. And she had rung off without saying another word, not even goodbye.
Had she confused her with someone else? That was hardly likely – she’d called her by name and described the colour of her bedroom walls. The old dear was definitely a little gaga.
“Cody, do you want to look at some furniture before we run by the craft fair to help Joy take down her booth?” called Elana into the living room as she picked up the phone again.
“Sure, mom,” said Cody as he came into the kitchen, Smeagol perched on his shoulder.
While waiting for her call to be answered, Elana turned to Cody and said, “Could you put the groceries away for me . . . oh hello – is that Mr Armitage?”
Cody rifled through the bags, opening and closing cupboards and fridge as quietly as he could while Elana got directions.
“Okay, bud, let’s skedaddle,” she said as she placed the phone back on the receiver. She felt a quiver of anticipation run through her body. Not only was she tired of sleeping on an air mattress on the floor and living out of cardboard boxes, she was intrigued, despite her scepticism, by all that the old lady had told her. Could the furniture really talk to her? And, if so, what would it say?
“May I have a yoghurt?” Cody looked up at her pleadingly.
“I don’t want you eating yoghurt in the car – have a banana.”
“Remember what happened last time when I had to put the brakes on suddenly?”
“Not till after supper.”
“If you’re quick. I want to leave right now.”
Cody hurriedly cut a couple of slices of cheddar while Elana got on her jacket. They hopped into the car and did up their seat belts then, as she started the engine and put the car into gear Cody handed her a piece. “This one’s for you.”
“Thanks, hon! Making sure your mom doesn’t starve?”
He grinned and bit into his slice. As they drove past the stables Elana didn’t miss how he craned his neck the whole way by. Was he looking at the horses or looking for someone in particular? She didn’t want to ask him, but felt a tightening in her heart.
Headquarters Roadthey turned left, instead of right as they usually did, and then took the next left. The road wound through farmland and crossed over the , the grey water spreading widely over a rocky bed. After a sharp bend, Elana started checking the addresses and then turned up a narrow driveway that led to an old farmhouse. A man was waiting on the front porch. Tsolum River
“It’s just down in the barn,” he called out as he walked over to meet them.
He chatted amiably as he led the way behind the house and past the chicken run. “The stuff was my sister’s, but she’s moved into a small apartment and can’t keep it. She’s had it for about fifteen years – bought it at an auction. I don’t know much about antiques and things, but it’s old and a little beat up. The lady from the store told me it was just what you’re looking for.”
“I hope so,” said Elana, smiling.
“I hope so too,” said Mr Armitage. “I need to put my tractor away for the winter. If you don’t take it I’ll just break it up for firewood.” He threw open the barn doors. “Light’s not much good in here, but . . .”
Elana slowly walked up to the furniture. The oak was warm and golden, and even through the dust and smatterings of straw and the dim light, it glowed. There was a sleigh bed, dismantled, a tallboy, and a wardrobe with a mirror that was spotted with age. String was tied through the holes in one of the drawers in place of handles, and the nicks and dents of time were plainly visible in the wood. She opened the wardrobe and metal hangers rattled, light filtered through from a crack in the backing, the door hung a little crooked on its hinges.
“You were right – no fur coats,” said Cody.
The drawer underneath pulled out part way unevenly and then stuck. Elana had to jiggle it to push it back in again. She ran her hand up the smooth curves of the side, over the simple carving that arched above the mirror – twisted vines and . . . she looked closer. In the dimness she could just make out a bird in flight. The headboard had a similar design, though a portion of it was completely missing; the footboard and tallboy only had a knot of leaves.
“It’s sorta worse for wear,” the man said apologetically.
“No,” said Elana. “It’s incredible. It’s beautiful. More than I ever imagined.” And it did speak to her, though not in words. It just made her feel comforted, somehow, and it seemed right that it should be sitting in the barn waiting only for her.
“The whole side of the dresser is warped,” he said, “and none of the drawers run smooth, but my sister liked it.”
“Can I give you a check?” asked Elana. “Or should I come by later with cash? I’ll try to get a friend with a truck to pick the furniture up as soon as I can. Please don’t sell it to anyone else.”
“Just as long as I can get my tractor in here by next weekend,” he said with a laugh.
Elana drove back down the driveway feeling elated and Cody chattered happily – the furniture already gone from his mind, he talked about the chickens and the ducks, and the goat that had come up to him in the yard and nudged its stubby little horns against his hip.
As she walked through the pottery booth, Elana sighed. She returned to Joy who was folding up shawls and hangings and putting them into boxes.
“What’s gone?” asked Joy as she closed the box.
Elana sat on the floor and leaned against the hallstand. “The pottery bowl. It was so beautiful. But I couldn’t afford it. I thought if I waited till the last day I could ask if the potter would give me a deal on it.”
“Why didn’t you tell me? I’m sure I could have traded something for it.”
“Then I would just owe you, but thanks, sweetie.” Elana leaned her head back and closed her eyes. “Did you see it? It was a shallow bowl – very fine – done in a dark green glaze with pink crackling, and flashes of gold and charcoal. I loved the feel of it – the balance – it was serene.” She heard steps and opened her eyes to see Darien Stewart looking at her thoughtfully. She jumped up and began folding the screens. What is his problem?
Carl gave Joy a hug. “We’re here to help,” he said. “Can’t believe it, but I’ve roped
“I’ve got my truck,” said
. “What do you want to load first?” Darien
Joy began organising the men while Elana looked around for Cody – but he’d already noticed Mr Stewart and had run over to talk to him. Elana hefted a box up and headed for the door.
Dennis always seemed to be available when Elana needed him. On Monday he’d gone to the farm and picked up her furniture while she’d driven into Courtenay to the mattress shop to buy a new mattress for her bed. It was a double bed, but Elana had no need for anything as big as queen size anyway. She had the mattress delivered and that night everything was set up in her room. All that was missing was the dark green and russet carpet – but it existed in her imagination and, who knows, if she had a good season the coming year, it could eventually become a reality too.
She’d cleaned the old oak and oiled it. Her room still smelled of oranges. Her clothes were finally out of boxes and folded in the drawers and hanging in the wardrobe. It was a completely different feeling to have big, sturdy furniture in her room and everything squared away. She lay on her faded yellow quilt and rubbed her hand along the wood of the headboard, ran her fingers over the carving. Half of the twining vine was gone, and one of the bird’s wings, but it still flew. Elana smiled. She leaned back and relished at the comfort of a real bed again after all those months.
Cody came running in and jumped up beside her. He began to bounce.
“Hey, not so wild, tiger. I don’t want the bed to break when I just got it.”
“Can I sleep here with you tonight?”
“Sure thing, as long as you promise not to be a wiggle worm.”
He tried to be very still. “Would you read to me?”
“How about you go wash up, get into your jammies, and choose a book?”
“Yes!” he cried and ran off to get ready for bed.
Elana plumped up her pillows and put one behind her back. As she waited for Cody, fleetingly she wondered about the vision of the little girl the old woman had seen on the bed with her. Was her hair straight, or curly? Did she have laughing eyes? What was her name? And then she shook her head at herself for being so silly as to take something like that seriously. There was just Cody and herself, and she was completely happy with it that way. When he arrived with the book she held out her arms to him and he snuggled up next to her. She pulled the quilt up high around them both and then opened the book and began to read.
“Thanks for helping out yesterday, old man,” said Carl.
“You’ve already thanked me,” said
as he sat at his desk. “What’s really on your mind?” Darien
Carl picked up a pen and twirled it around. “So, what do you think of Joy now that you’ve met her a couple of times?”
“I told you last Friday that she’s very beautiful.”
“But I’m asking about what you think of her, not your impression of what she looks like.”
“It’s hard to judge someone on such a short acquaintance,” said
carefully. “I think she’s talented – her weaving is well crafted and she’s got a good colour sense. Look – I bought a blanket.” He pointed to the armchair in the corner of his study where a thick, multi-coloured blanket was lying. Darien
Carl smiled. “She’s amazing isn’t she?” He threw the pen down on the desk, looking more relaxed. “She worked so hard for the fair, and her stuff was all so beautiful. It sold really well too – she had barely anything left to pack up and she’s got lots of orders she has to complete before Christmas.”
“I’m happy for her,” said
, shuffling some pages on his desk. Darien
“Why do I still get the sense that you aren’t telling me exactly what you think?”
“Carl, you are transparent. You’ve gone over the deep end. I just think you should step a couple paces back and cool it for a bit.”
“What are you talking about? I love her, man!”
“That much is obvious. But here’s the kicker – does she love you?”
“What are you saying? Of course she does. How could you . . . insinuate?”
“I’m not insinuating anything. You asked for my opinion and I tried not to give it, but you insisted. The truth is I’ve met Joy twice – she’s talented, she’s attractive, she’s quiet and sweet, but I haven’t seen anything to indicate that she likes you better than anyone else. She smiled at me just as much as she smiled at you. She was friendly to Lina, of all people. She was nice to her customers, the doorman, some guy on the street who bumped into her accidentally. You, on the other hand, barely pay attention to anyone else but her. I can’t even have an intelligent conversation with you anymore.”
Carl picked up a book and banged it down on the desk. “So – now you’re saying that I’m a fool? That she’s just stringing me along for my money?”
“I didn’t say that – you did.”
“Well, actually Lina did,” said Carl, kicking the leg of the desk. “But it’s what you’re thinking.”
“What I’m thinking and what I’m saying is the same thing. You should back off. Take a breath. Change your perspective. You’re obsessing and you can’t think clearly.”
“I don’t think you know what you’re talking about!” yelled Carl, and he pulled the door open with a jerk. He stood in the doorway for a minute and looked like he was going to say something else, but then he just strode through and slammed the door behind him.
All the pictures on the wall rattled.
got up to straighten a few and then sat down at his desk again. Wiggled the mouse to wake his computer. His story was there on the screen and he reread the last couple of paragraphs to try to get back into the feel of the scene he was writing. But thoughts kept obtruding. Darien
He stood up and walked around the room, tried to calm his ideas, channel them. But his mind kept returning to Carl. He didn’t want Carl hurt – the guy was just too vulnerable. And Joy – well, she was difficult to read. Behind her open appearance he sensed hidden reserve. As if you could get only so close and no further, and this is what worried him where Carl was concerned. When Carl fell in love he held nothing back. He’d seen Carl in love before and he’d been there to pick up the pieces afterward – when Carl had been tossed aside. He didn’t want to have to do it again – see the pain in his friend’s eyes that could almost cut you it was so sharp. He didn’t want Carl to have to experience that bitter, yawning emptiness – the misery – the sorrow.
He didn’t know if he was ready to believe in Joy – but dammit, he hadn’t wanted to tell Carl yet. It was too soon – Carl was moving too quickly. And now he’d alienated him. It didn’t help that Lina had been saying baseless, vindictive things about the girl. Not for a minute did he think that Joy was after Carl’s money.
And what worried him more than anything else was that Carl was obsessed and might act without thinking.
understood obsession – but he also had acres of self control. He could stop himself before he did something totally stupid. Could Carl? Darien
’s thoughts slid past Carl to his own obsession. Back to the craft fair the day before. She’d been there, lying against that antique furniture – her eyes closed – looking so much like Lanea that Darien had begun to wonder whether he was finally losing his grip on where reality ended and fantasy began, or was it where fantasy ended and reality began? Her voice had been so wistful – so full of longing. And she’d described something that he knew very well. Darien
He walked over to a table by the window that looked out over the trees that bounded his property, and through those trees to the greenhouses. On that table a bowl was placed. He picked it up and weighed it in his hands – it was light, fine, balanced: serene. That was a good word for it – she’d described it perfectly. His hand ran over the soft inward curve of the bowl, felt the smoothness of the green, the rough pink crackling, the satin feel of the gold, and the dusty texture of the drifts of charcoal. Whose bowl was it? Where did it really belong? He gently put it back and then seated himself in front of the computer again. He was ready. Words were piling up against each other, pushing, fighting for escape. Wanting to be placed just so – where they echoed off one another and resonated with story.
“I’ve got a favour to ask you, Elana.”
Joy sounded like something was troubling her. Elana pulled her gloves off and set them on the potting bench. “What’s up?”
“Well . . . would you mind very much going to the theatre with Carl and me and a few friends?”
Elana understood Joy’s tentative attitude now. Darien Stewart must be one of the friends she was referring to. “You want me to spend an evening with that . . . that stuck up prig?”
“Elana . . . I know you’re not crazy about him, but there will be lots of other people and it’s very important to Carl - he wants to bring everybody together to get to know each other. It’s awkward for him that his friends don’t know me or the people I am close to. He’s sure that if Lina and Darien were to get to know us better they wouldn’t have any reservations . . .”
“Hold it,” Elana cut in. “Reservations? You mean they actually have something against you? Impossible! You are the sweetest, kindest person in the world. How dare they take their bad opinion of me and extend it to you!”
“No – it’s not that. Really . . . I don’t think anyone of them has a bad opinion of you, or of me. Carl just said . . . he just said that they don’t have any idea what we are about. How can they have any opinion if they don’t know us? He wants them to get to know us – me, you, Chandra – and I’m counting on you to say you’ll come. I just know that if you get to know them you’ll like them too. Remember how helpful Darien was with packing up my booth at the fair? And Lina – I know you two have had run-ins – this would be a good opportunity to clear up the misunderstanding between you. And you like Justie and Colin – they’d be coming too.”
“Oh Joy – next thing you’ll say that Lina is nice too and you know she is such a bag. I’m sorry – she is Carl’s sister but I can’t help telling the truth.” She glanced at Joy who had slumped onto a stool and was looking completely miserable. “Okay – I’ll come for you, and I’ll try not to set Lina off, but don’t expect me to be friendly with her or Darien – I don’t think I could manage more than politeness.”
“That’s all I ask,” said Joy, brightening. “Oh, and Cody is invited too. I can’t wait to tell Carl – he’ll be so relieved.”
“So when is this big night, and what’re we going to see?”
“It’s next Saturday night. Carl’s goddaughter Monica is playing Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. It’s at the Sid Williams Theatre – you know – at Fifth St and Cliffe. And we’re all going to dinner at The Old House before the performance.”
When Elana got back to work, she dipped cuttings into rooting hormones and jammed them into the flats in front of her as if each little twig was Lina or Darien. After snapping two of them in half she stopped her mindless planting and took a deep breath to calm herself. What had Darien and Lina been saying to Carl about them? She wouldn’t put it past either of them to try and break Carl and Joy up. Lina was probably having conniptions at the fact that her brother’s girlfriend was just a cashier at Superstore and not some society girl. And she already knew Darien’s opinion of people who lived in run-down little houses. Well, she was going to the dinner and the play and she was going to show them that you couldn’t judge people by their houses, or cars, or bank balances. She and Chandra and Joy were going to look so elegant they’d be blown away. She continued planting as she began visualising the dresses the three of them would have to start sewing right away if they were going to make any impression on those two snobs at all.
“I don’t know why you invited all those people, Carl,” said Lina as she took one last look at her hair in the mirror. “Your little girlfriend is one thing, but to spend the evening in the company of the Jam Lady is just too much. ”
“I really like Elana,” said Justie, “and I see nothing wrong with the fact that she makes jam and sells it. It’s good jam.”
“That girl has a mouth on her,” said Lina. “She just sucks up to you to get free riding lessons for her snotty little kid.”
“Lina . . .” said Carl threateningly.
“It’s okay Carl,” said Justie. “I know Lina’s just jealous.”
“Jealous? Of her? Why? That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.”
“Because Darien doesn’t look at you the way he looks at her,” said Justie with a smirk.
“That’s absurd,” said Lina with a dismissive toss of her head. But when Darien came down the stairs she went up to him and leaned seductively in a way that showed her endowments to full advantage. “Your sister’s being mean to me.”
“I’m sure you deserved whatever Justie said,” he responded almost absently as he looked over to Carl. “I’m sorry I made you wait. You might as well go and pick up Joy and her friends now - we’ll meet you there.”
“Okay,” he said, a little nervously, then he looked over at his sister. “And you behave – this is important to me.”
After Carl had gone, Lina picked up her jacket and gave Darien a beseeching look. “Help me into this?”
“You can’t put on your own jacket?” asked Justie as she watched the struggle Lina was having getting it on even with Darien’s help. “Should have bought one that fit you.”
“It was designed for me,” said Lina, pulling the skin-tight sleeves down to her wrists.
“When you were six?” asked Justie.
“What is wrong with you two?” asked Darien. “C’mon, stop sniping at each other and let’s get going. Carl’s a nervous wreck as it is – he’ll be freaking out if we’re late.”
“She said something really nasty about Elana and Cody – I was just paying her back.”
“I don’t know why everyone is so ga-ga over them,” said Lina. “Elaine is always rude to me and I don’t see why she expects free lessons for her kid.”
“Her name is Elana,” said Darien as he opened the door. “Try to get it right for once.”
“And Cody’s lessons aren’t free – Elana just pays less because he helps me in the barn. It was my idea,” said Justie as she buttoned her coat.
“Well, don’t expect me to be drooling all over them like the rest of you,” said Lina. “And I think Darien’s got more sense than that too.” She glanced up at him provocatively, hoping that he would agree with her, but Darien was fumbling in his pocket for his keys, apparently not paying the slightest attention to anything she had just said.
“I’m still blown away by you insisting we get all swanked up,” said Chandra as she fastened a silver locket around Elana’s neck. “But I sure am glad you did. We are three gorgeous broads! Carl won’t know what hit him when he sees Joy.”
Elana was wondering if she had been in her right mind. When she looked in the mirror it was like she was looking at a stranger, with her hair swept up, Joy’s diamond studs in her ears, and make up. She hadn’t worn a dress in such a long time that she felt exposed. It was a very classic cut, sleeveless, with cross over straps in the back and a skirt that swirled just below her kneecaps. The ankle strap shoes borrowed from Chandra accentuated the shape of her legs. She felt a little more at ease when she put her jacket on.
The doorbell rang and Chandra ran to get it. “Get ready for your big entrance, Joy,” she cried. But when she opened the door she suddenly went stock-still – whatever smart comment she had been about to make to Carl died on her lips.
“The least you could do is invite me in,” said Colin.
“I thought . . . we were meeting at the restaurant.”
“You look beautiful,” he said, lounging against the doorframe.
“Aw . . . sheesh . . . so do you.”
“I still don’t get to come in? Soon you’ll be heating the whole outdoors.”
“Get in here,” said Chandra, finally regaining her equilibrium. “And stop being a goof.”
Colin came in and looked over to Elana. “Wow! You look great too.”
“I’m almost afraid to see Joy, or I’ll be tempted to drive her as well and Carl will be left with no one.”
“You’re taking Elana too? And I thought it was me that you loved!” Chandra put her hand on her hip and pouted expressively.
“It is,” said Colin blandly, “but we’ll need Cody and Elana as chaperones. I couldn’t trust myself alone with you.”
“Smart-ass!” said Chandra, giving him a playful shove. “Wait till you see Cody – he looks like such a little gentleman – he’s even got a tie.”
Cody came into the room tugging at the thing. “Do I have to wear it? I can’t breathe.”
“It’s all part of becoming a man,” said Colin, squatting down to adjust it for him. “There you go – girls can’t put them on right.”
Just then three things happened at once: Joy entered the room, Colin emitted a low whistle, and the doorbell rang.
“Right on cue,” said Chandra as she opened the door for Carl.
He was looking a little anxious but his face changed upon seeing Joy. She looked like a Dresden doll in powder blue, with silver icicles hanging from her ears and dangling across the milky skin below her throat.
“Time for us to leave,” whispered Colin, and he shooed everybody else out of the house.
“I’m beginning to wish I didn’t invite all those people,” said Carl. He came forward and took her in his arms, his eyes not leaving her face. “I don’t see how anyone could possibly not love you.”
“Don’t worry – tonight will go well,” said Joy.
“So far it’s off to a great start,” said Carl, completely forgetting his sister’s snide remarks. The only thing of importance to him now was Joy. He leaned his head down and kissed her, gently at first but then with more feeling as she put her arms around his neck and responded.
“We’d better go,” she said when she finally pulled her head away. “They’ll be wondering where we are.”
“Let them wait,” he said and he kissed her again.
The Old House was, just as it sounded, a large old house - down by the Puntledge River - that had been converted into a restaurant. It was set in a beautiful garden, but the middle of December was not the time to be wandering about the premises looking at plants, so Elana only got a brief view as Colin escorted them into the building. They were led to their table in a private enclave and were taking their coats off when Darien arrived with Lina and Justie.
“Where’s Carl?” asked Lina, looking around.
“They’ll be here soon,” said Chandra, “Carl just arrived to pick Joy up when we left.”
“I’d say they’ll be a little while yet,” said Colin, and Chandra slapped his arm playfully.
They all chose seats, Justie sitting between Elana and Cody, and Lina sliding in next to Darien, across from them. Chandra took the seat next to her and Colin sat at the end of the table, with Chandra on his left and Cody on his right. It didn’t take long for Lina to realise that though she was beside Darien, his gaze was directed across the table to where the Jam Girl sat with the candlelight casting a warm glow on her face. Lina contented herself in thinking that it threw deep shadows under her eyes, but as a precaution she shuffled her chair over, closer to Darien, and whispered in his ear to get his attention.
Darien was caught by the curl that had escaped above Elana’s ear to fall upon her cheek, the glint of the diamond stud, the honey colour of her throat. This wasn’t the dirt streaked Elana in old jeans or the tangle haired Lanea that crept through bushes. This was someone else, and he almost hadn’t recognised her as he’d come up the stairs and seen her standing there beside the table in her dark green dress, half leaning over towards Cody, the silky fabric softly draping itself over her body.
Lina whispered in his ear again, a little louder this time, and scowled as Justie’s smirk reached her from the other side of the table.
“Darien, I’m talking to you,” she finally said in exasperation.
He started and turned to her. “Sorry – I was thinking of something else – I didn’t hear you.”
“That’s okay, darling,” she said, casting her eyes across the table to see if Elana was watching. “You must be so preoccupied with business details. It’s hardly surprising when you have so many responsibilities with managing the stables and all your other properties.”
“I was actually thinking of something quite different,” he said.
“What wine do you want tonight?”
“Pick whatever you like.”
“But I want to be sure it’s something you like too.”
“I’m not having wine tonight – why don’t you ask the others so you can order a wine that everybody wants?”
“Not having wine? Don’t be so silly.” She turned her head from him and looked past Chandra to Colin. “Darien says he’s not drinking – you’ll have some wine with me, surely.”
Colin addressed the whole table. “What would everybody like? Red or white?”
Lina whispered in Darien’s ear again. “Now that’s done it. They’ll probably choose some crass stuff to go with their crass tastes.”
Darien turned to her and said in an undervoice, “I only see one person at this table who is anything approaching crass,” then he turned away again and raised his hand to catch the waitress’s attention.
Lina stared at Elana and then at Chandra wondering which one of the two he had meant, and then she looked at the little boy, who surprisingly was dressed quite presentably for once. It wasn’t him, or Justie, or Colin. She hoped it was Elana and that that was the reason Darien’s eyes kept drifting across the table.
Carl and Joy arrived just as the drinks were being ordered. Carl apologised for being late as he pulled out Joy’s chair for her and then took his own seat, but his apology did not seem sincere. His eyes were sparkling and he looked anything but sorry for having kept anybody waiting.
Aside from the fact that Elana had been unnerved by the amount of times she’d caught Darien’s eyes on her, she’d enjoyed her dinner. She didn’t mind the fact that the chair beside her was empty – she had Justie on the other side to talk to. Lina was far enough away that she never had to say anything to her, and Darien was either talking to his girlfriend, who was hanging on his arm most of the time, or to Joy who was sitting on his other side. Colin and Chandra were keeping their end of the table in giggles, so Cody was well entertained, and the food had been delicious. They did not sit long over the meal because there was the play to go to.
When they got to the parking lot and got into the cars, Elana was surprised to find herself alone in the front seat of Darien’s car with Darien Stewart himself. The other two vehicles had driven off and no one was standing around.
“Where’s Lina?” she asked a he turned his key in the ignition.
“I think she and Justie went with Carl and Joy.”
Darien backed out of the parking stall and drove up to the road. “Did you enjoy dinner?”
“Yes,” she said, looking at the approaching headlights for a space he could pull into. ‘He must be liking this just as much as I am,’ she thought. And it seemed that she was correct in that assumption because nothing more was said in the few minutes it took to drive along Cliffe Avenue to the Sid Williams Theatre. Elana trained her eyes to the window, pretending to be interested in the businesses that they passed. When they parked Darien was out of the car and opening her door before she realised it. She got out and found herself surprisingly close to him. A light tang of ginger trailed on the cool night air. His cheek - so close to her eyes - was smooth, his sideburn perfectly trimmed. She’d never noticed the shape of his ear before. She caught her breath as he took her arm and escorted her to the stairs. The others had all gathered there. Justie grinned as they walked up and Lina darted forward.
“Darien darling,” she cried, “I don’t know what happened! I’m so sorry that I left you all alone!” She clung to his other arm.
“As you can see I wasn’t alone,” he said dryly.
Elana slipped her arm from his light grasp and joined Cody. She took a deep breath. The experience had been just too weird. She wasn’t going to let something like that happen again.
The play was marvellous. All thoughts of such unimportant people as Darien and Lina flew from Elana’s head. She was mesmerized by the actors upon the stage. For a young theatre company their performance was very compelling. Monica caught the character of Eliza perfectly: she was bold, forthright, and saucy, and she sang beautifully. After the curtain calls and standing ovations, Carl dragged everyone backstage to meet his goddaughter and present her with roses. Lina showered her with accolades, but Elana could see that Monica preferred Justie’s quiet praise.
“Should we all go for coffee?” asked Carl as they left Monica to get out of her costume and makeup.
“I’m calling it a night,” said Darien. “But thanks. The play was wonderful and I even think you succeeded in your objective for the evening.”
“Thanks,” said Carl, giving him a hug. “That means a lot to me.”
“I’ll talk to you later. Who is coming with me?”
Justie, who had been talking to Elana and Cody, answered him. “Could we give these two a ride home?”
“And of course I’m coming with you too,” said Lina, rubbing his arm.
“Yes, your car is parked at my place, isn’t it?”
Elana thought it was an odd remark to make to his girlfriend, but she soon dismissed it as she climbed into the back of his car with Cody and Justie. On the ride home Justie sang I Could Have Danced all Night the whole way, and the others joined in for the chorus, even Cody and Darien.
As she got into bed later, the song was still running through her head. Elana snuggled under her covers and went to sleep filled with a warm comfortable feeling.
Darien sat at his computer. It was late. Lina had come in instead of just driving straight home and it had been an hour before she had taken the hint and gone. Justie was going to hear about it in the morning, leaving for bed so quickly like that and eliminating his means of escape. He had wanted nothing more than to get back to his computer and write, ever since the play had ended. And now all he could do was sit and stare at the screen.
What he had said to Carl was true. For the first time he noticed that light that shone in Joy’s eyes when she looked at his friend. And talking to her he had discovered that she was more than just a pretty face. It was possible he was wrong about her after all – that there was no need to worry – that she did care but was cautious not to let it show too much. Anyway, it was evident from the way Carl was behaving that there was no going back for him, so there was nothing to do but allow him his head and hope for the best.
And his own obsession – was he any further ahead in solving it? He worried that Elana was beginning to mean more to him than just a muse. Tonight he’d listened to her conversation, watched her smile, driven with her, stood close enough to smell her subtle fragrance, taken her arm, and even heard her sing in the car on the way home. The green of her dress had made her hazel eyes darker – more vivid. And she had looked . . . very nice in it. He leaned back and thought about when they had been alone together in the car. A pity the drive wasn’t longer. No – maybe it was a good thing the drive wasn’t longer. They hadn’t talked – just her presence had been enough for him, and the soft guitar music on his stereo. It would be better if he didn’t think about it. Having her as a muse was one thing. Anything else was . . . improbable.
He clicked his mouse on his media player – put on Nick Drake’s “Northern Sky” – sat back again and let the music flow. It was the same song that had been playing in the car. He was crazy to sit there and listen to it and think of her. Foolish. Irresponsible. Irrational. But when it ended he played it again, and again, and again. And his fingers didn’t touch the keyboard at all.
“So, what time did you get in last night?” Elana looked pointedly at Chandra as she came into the kitchen.
“I didn’t know you were my mother,” said Chandra with a wink, then she twirled around the room before sitting at the table.
“So you had a good time, I take it.”
“They don’t call the guy Fox for nothing,” Chandra smiled mischievously.
“I guess I’d better not ask any more questions. Looks like we’re reaching the point of too much information.”
“I wish!” Chandra checked the teapot and then got up to get a cup from the cupboard. “We went to that new little coffee place on Fifth. After we closed it down he drove me home.”
“And you shook hands on the doorstep, I suppose?” Elana smirked.
“Something like that,” said Chandra.
“If that’s all that happened why are you floating on air this morning?”
“He’s got a great handshake?”
“You’re dying to tell me what really happened.”
“Let’s just say I’ll be seeing him again soon.”
“How soon?” asked Elana, laughing at the smug look on her friend’s face.
Chandra checked her watch. “In about six and a half hours.”
“Man’s a fast worker!”
“What d’ya mean? It’s taken him over two months to ask me out!”
“Yeah, but now that he knows what he wants he’s not wasting any time.”
Chandra took a sip of her tea and looked at Elana speculatively. “Now we just gotta find you a man.”
“You and Joy took all the good ones,” Elana said flippantly. “Anyway, I don’t have time for anything like that right now.”
“We took all the good ones? How can you say that when there’s a hunk like Darien Stewart practically on your doorstep?”
“That’s completely ridiculous!” Elana looked at Chandra like there was something wrong with her. “For one thing, he’s not available, and even more to the point, we can’t stand each other.”
“Then why was he having trouble keeping his eyes off you last night?”
“He was probably totally amazed that I wasn’t wearing some skanky outfit.”
“No,” giggled Chandra. “Lina had that one covered – or should I say uncovered? She was almost falling out of her designer dress – if you could call what she was wearing a dress.”
“The least you could have done was take advantage of the situation after I went to so much effort to provide it for you,” Justie said, flipping the eggs over in the pan.
“What are you talking about?” Darien popped four slices of bread in the toaster and then turned back to his sister.
“Do you think it was an accident that you and Elana were alone together for the drive to the Sid?”
Darien drummed his fingers on the counter. When Justie was about ready to tell him that he was no Matt Cameron, he finally spoke. “I don’t need you to set things up for me.”
“Don’t you? You aren’t doing very well on your own, if you don’t mind my saying so.”
“The thing you fail to grasp,” said Darien, speaking slowly and with emphasis, “is that I’m not trying to do anything.”
“No,” said Justie, sliding the eggs onto their plates. “That is painfully obvious. What’s wrong with you?”
“I’m not interested in Elana.”
“Tell me another one.”
“Look . . .” Darien was interrupted by the toast popping. When he had buttered it and set it on the table he took a seat beside his sister and continued. “It’s not that simple. Can we talk about something else?”
“I guess we can, but you are very maddening, you know.”
“I know.” He smiled at her. “Thanks for the reprieve from Lina. It was a nice drive.”
“Even though you wasted it!”
Darien chose to ignore her remark. That particular subject was closed. “I wasn’t too crazy about what you did to me later in the evening, though.”
Justie had the grace to look guilty. “Oh?”
“It took me an hour to get rid of Lina last night, and there were things I would rather have been doing.”
“Just thought I’d impress on you what you’re in danger of getting stuck with if you don’t take any action.”
Darien shuddered. “It’s not gonna happen, Justie. Give me a little more credit than that.”
“That’s not what Lina thinks.”
Darien shrugged his shoulders and set about eating his eggs.
“Mom! Mom! We gotta get going. I can’t be late for my last game before Christmas.”
“Don’t worry, honey. We’ll be there on time. Do you have your sports bag and water bottle? I just have to get my shoes on.”
“Tell your hot coach not to worry – I’ll be there at game time,” called Chandra from the hall.
“Why should he care?” asked Cody as they ran out the door.
“He likes her,” said Elana.
“Oh, I knew that.” Cody threw his stuff into the backseat and then buckled up. “But this is a game. What he really cares about is if I get there on time.”
“I’ll get you there, bucko,” Elana said, grinning to herself.
When they got to the field, Colin looked at them and then his eyes drifted off behind them.
“She said not to worry – she’ll be here by game time.” Elana winked.
Cody rolled his eyes at his coach and heaved a big sigh.
“I have no idea what you are talking about,” Colin said to Elana and then he ran onto the field with Cody to do the pre-game drill.
Elana shook her head, her eyes alight with laughter, and went over to talk to one of the other mothers while the kids did their warm ups.
Chandra brought Sam with her when she came. Cody waved at them from the centre of the field where he was practicing shots on goal, but Colin came running off the field. He said “Hi” to Sam and then took Chandra’s hand and pulled her a little way from the rest. Elana noticed him tuck Chandra’s hair behind her ear and then lean in and kiss her on the cheek. His arm slid around her back and he stood close, talking, until the head coach ran over and yelled, “C’mon, lover boy! The game’s about to begin.” All the boys on the field were giggling.
When Chandra rejoined Elana she gave her a quelling stare, but it only made Elana laugh harder.
“You shouldn’t be distracting the coaches, Chandra. It’s the game that’s important, you know.”
“I can’t help it if I’m irresistible,” said Chandra, blowing on her fingernails and rubbing them on her jacket.
The whistle blew and the game started. One of the forwards passed the ball back to Cody at mid and he took it up the side and then crossed it. Elana was watching the play intently when someone tapped her on the shoulder and said, “Hi.” She looked around and there was Justie smiling at her, and behind Justie was Darien who smiled and then gazed fixedly out upon the field.
“Cody told us it was his last game before the holidays so we had to come and see it,” Justie said. “Which is his team?”
“The ones in blue,” said Darien before Elana could answer.
“That’s right,” Elana said. “He’s up over there, playing left mid.”
“I see him,” said Justie, and then she moved over behind Elana as if wanting to get a better look, ending up on her other side and leaving Elana between herself and Darien. Her new position brought her closer to Chandra and Sam and she began talking to them.
Elana was left wondering how she could politely move away. The last thing she wanted to do was watch Cody’s soccer game in the company of her neighbour. She turned her head resolutely towards the play where a goal attempt was being made and wished that the kids would maintain the play in that end of the field if only to keep Darien out of her sights. Luckily he was silent so far, and as Cody stood on the sidelines preparing for a throw in she hoped he remained that way. She saw no reason why he should want to talk to her anyway.
“He’s got a good strong throw.”
Elana nodded but said nothing and shifted over to her right. Chandra and Justie had moved further up the sidelines, deserting her. She saw no real reason why she felt compelled to stay where she was, but somehow she couldn’t move away. The opposition now had the ball and was carrying it across the centre line and Elana had to turn to watch as Cody ran hard into a defensive position. He tackled a forward for the ball and managed to kick it off to the side. She was cheering his play when she noticed Darien clapping and then giving him a thumbs up signal, which Cody returned.
The play resumed and Cody intercepted the throw in, dekeing around two players before he passed the ball up the side and then ran forward to be in line to receive it again.
“He just doesn’t give up,” said Darien appreciatively. “And he makes things happen. Look how he just set up that shot.”
Elana flashed him a smile. She couldn’t help but feel warmed by praise for her child. “He loves being out there and getting in all the action.”
“He’s got your determination.”
‘My determination?’ Elana stared at Darien. How could he presume to know anything about her? She turned her head back to the game in time to see an excellent save by the opposing goalie, and did her best until half time to ignore the fact that Darien Stewart was anywhere close to her. She became completely involved in the game, jumping up and down and yelling encouragement. When the whistle blew and Cody came running off the field to her, she grabbed him in her arms and said, “You are totally awesome!”
“Thanks mom!” Cody looked around and then said, “Where’s Mr Stewart? I thought he was with you.”
“He wasn’t with me – he was just standing close to where I was.”
Cody rolled his eyes and then pointed off towards the concession stand. “There he is.”
“I think you’re right. He’s probably getting coffee for him and Justie. Do you want anything? Are you cold?”
“I’m so hot! When we’re short subs like this and I’m playing all the time it’s impossible to get cold.”
“Well you’re lucky then because I think my toes are going to fall off. It’s colder than I thought it would be – I should have worn a scarf. Is my nose all red?”
Cody scrunched up his eyes as he examined her face. “Like Rudolph’s.”
“Thanks, bud! That’s just what I needed to hear.”
“I’m going to go and get some oranges before they’re all gone,” said Cody, running over to where his teammates were jostling each other around a bucket.
As Elana stood and watched him, a smile spread over her face. He was growing so much and becoming so confident and independent. Joining the soccer team had been one of the best things for him and, she had to admit, the riding lessons too. He was developing into a strong, capable, and surprisingly athletic boy.
Darien hesitated as he approached Elana, not wanting to disturb her. The expression on her face as she watched her son almost took his breath away. Her eyes were suffused with light and the warmth of it seemed to spread across her face, smoothing away the tight lines that had been there earlier when she had regarded him. Lines that had been brought on, no doubt, by the cold. That was what had prompted him to go and get the hot drinks.
Finally he extended his hand towards her. “Hot chocolate?”
She turned her luminous eyes upon him, their expression subtly changing. “For me?”
“You looked cold.”
“What about Justie?” she said, glancing around.
He hadn’t even thought about Justie. “She can get her own. Take it . . . or don’t you like hot chocolate? I can get you a coffee if you’d rather.”
“No . . . um . . . hot chocolate is fine. Thanks.” She took the cup and held it between both hands, sipping cautiously.
“Do you think Cody would like one? I can give him mine and get another for myself.”
“No – no. I already asked him if he wanted something. He said he’d be fine with the oranges.”
“I was like that too when I used to play – but afterwards – my dad would take me for burgers and fries and a chocolate shake, and I’d still be hungry.”
She laughed and he enjoyed watching how her eyes crinkled at the corners and her nose scrunched up. He felt a sudden urge to reach out and touch her cheek, but he controlled it by turning and taking a large sip of his drink, almost scalding his mouth. Why did she have to be so damn appealing?
The game started again and he stood beside her, always conscious of her presence. She was completely immersed in the game and he found himself watching her reaction to it almost as much as the game itself. He said nothing more though, afraid that he had been paying too much attention to her and not wanting to inspire any false hopes. But it was more than he could do to move completely away from her. Usually he saw her from a distance, coming and going from her greenhouses, invariably pushing heavily laden wheelbarrows. Or fleetingly at the stables when she picked up Cody. Her closeness now was almost overwhelming and he chided himself for being a fool.
The game resulted in a nil - nil tie, and though it wasn’t the playoffs, both coaches opted to go into overtime. There was no game following theirs and the boys were all eager. It was still scoreless after the overtime period played out and there was nothing for it but to have a shoot out.
Cody ran off the field, ecstatic. “Mom! Mr Stewart! They picked me! I’m going fourth!”
“Of course they picked you honey,” said Elana. “They want to win.”
Darien grinned at him and gave him a high five before he ran back on again.
The opposing team got to go first and their first player put the ball into the net, going to the right while the goalie had guessed left. Cody’s teammate missed the goal completely. None of the next three shooters was able to get it past the goalies. Cody’s friend Bryce put the ball between the other goalie’s legs to tie it up, and then the next opposing player’s shot went off the cross bar. When Cody came up to the mark and ensured the ball was placed just as he wanted, Darien couldn’t resist the impulse to give Elana’s hand a comforting squeeze. He let go immediately and was jumping in the air clapping with everyone else when the well aimed ball sailed past the diving goalie’s hands and into the back of the net.
“His first goal!” cried Elana.
“And it was a beauty,” Darien said.
They watched with increasing tension as the next member of the opposition lined up for his shot. The ball went straight into the goalie’s hands and the game was over. Colin carried Cody off the field on his shoulders shouting, “This calls for pizza! My treat.”
After congratulating Cody on a well-played game and a great goal, Darien turned to Elana. “Justie and I need to get going now. Enjoy your pizza,” then he waited for his sister to say her goodbyes and strode off to the parking lot with her.
“Well, you did a little better this time,” teased Justie. “You should try talking more, though.”
“I already told you that I’m not trying to do anything.”
“The hot chocolate was a nice touch, I must admit.”
Darien threw his gloves at Justie and opened the car door. “Get in before I decide to leave you here.”
He picked up his gloves and then went around to the driver’s side. As he slid into his seat, Justie looked over to him. “You’re being very cautious. You used to be a bit more forward than this, though I admit you never had to exert yourself much. Just one of your smouldering looks would usually have them panting on your doorstep.”
“Can it, will you?” Darien put his car into gear and backed out of his parking spot with a little more force than necessary.
She reached out and placed her hand on his. “Sorry – I’m being insensitive. I didn’t realise that what Anya did to you still hurt so much.”
“Justie, when will you learn to stop jumping to conclusions?” He threw her a warm smile. “It’s been a couple of years and I’m all over that, really. I know Anya wasn’t right for me – actually she did me a favour by leaving.”
“I still can’t understand how she could have left you.”
Darien smiled at the loyalty of a sister who couldn’t understand any girl not thinking he was the perfect catch. “I didn’t want to leave the stables and she didn’t see a future for her art career here. She was right – she needed to be in a cultural centre like Toronto. She didn’t love me enough to settle for something less from her art and if I had really loved her as well as I thought I did, I should have been able to give everything over to a business manager and go with her. I’ve got investments in Toronto I could have managed instead.”
Justie looked over at him, her voice was very soft. “You never talked to me about it.”
“Of course not – I was pretty angry at the time.”
“So don’t shut me out now . . . about Elana.” Her expression was challenging.
“I’m not interested in Elana,” said Darien as he slowed down for a red light. He tried to keep his voice devoid of feeling.
“I just don’t understand you.”
“Which part of I’m not interested in Elana don’t you understand?”
“I’ve seen the way you look at her. What’s that all about?”
Darien sighed. He was going to have to say something or she would never get off his case. “She’s vibrant. She has energy that is very . . . attractive. I like the way she looks. Isn’t it possible to appreciate those things without being interested in her?”
“Apparently not,” Justie said, shaking her head at him. “Apparently not.”
The impromptu pizza party had been fun. The pizza place had been crammed full of over-exuberant boys, who had to be watched carefully so that they didn’t spike the jugs of pop with salt and pepper and crushed chillies. Sam had driven Chandra’s car home because Colin would not let her go. Literally. He’d grabbed her by the waist and threatened to throw her into the Puntledge if she’d even contemplated not spending the rest of the day with him.
Cody was on a high the rest of the afternoon. He’d joined Elana in the greenhouse, filling flats for her to plant cuttings into. He detailed every second of his goal, from the placing of the ball to how many steps he took backwards, the speed of his run up, the angle of his kick, the dexterity of the goalie, the way the ball had blown past the reaching hands, and the way the net had shook from the force of the ball hitting it. Elana smiled indulgently through every retelling.
For supper they just ate salad and then watched a video with Carl and Joy before going to bed. Elana retired at the same time as Cody. Not only was she tired, but she wanted Joy and Carl to enjoy some quiet time on their own. She lay down in her bed and attempted to read a book, but her mind kept going back to the game. It would have all been so perfect if Darien Stewart hadn’t been there. She had to admit it was nice of him to get her the hot chocolate, but she suspected that he had really bought it for Justie and had offered it to her on the spur of the moment when he’d seen her bright red nose.
And what had he meant by grabbing her hand like that? At the time she had been so nervous that the encouraging squeeze had actually calmed her, but afterwards she’d had a hard time explaining it to herself. Had he been as caught up in the game as she was so that he had acted out of pure instinct that had superseded his true feelings? It was the only thing that made sense to her. He certainly couldn’t have acted out of compassion – he was too hard-nosed and heartless for that. And what was he insinuating when he’d made that comment about her determination? He obviously still held it against her that she had not just given up and sold out when she’d seen what a mess her place was in.
She realised she’d never be able to concentrate on her book, so she turned out the light. Moonlight streaked her walls through the gap in her curtains. She stared at the slivery light and thought of all the work that awaited her in the morning. She wasn’t dreading it – she was looking forward to it. Whatever Darien Stewart thought about it all, she was proud of her determination. Proud that she hadn’t given in to him and taken the easy way out.
“This is the store, Mom!” Cody pulled Elana through the door of Hot Chocolates. “Bryce’s mom told me they have the best chocolate in town.”
“And the most expensive,” said Elana.
“But Mom! I want to get really nice presents.”
“Then they’ll have to be small.” Elana, smiled at the look of entreaty on his face.
After they had tasted the samples that were offered at the counter, Elana had to agree that the chocolates were very good. Cody looked at all the various sizes of boxes and quickly resigned himself to the ones that held three truffles for five dollars. He picked up one for each coach and one for his teacher and then he looked over to Elana. “Can I buy one for Mr Stewart as well as for Justie?”
“He’s not a teacher or a coach,” Elana said. “You’ve got no reason to give him a present.”
Cody sighed, and then reached for one of the boxes that held six truffles. “I’m going to get Justie a bigger box, then.”
“Cody . . .”
“Mom – please?”
Elana knew what he intended by buying Justie twice the amount, but it was Christmas and Cody seemed determined. She couldn’t stifle his caring, generous nature just because of her own feelings. Cody had a huge smile on his face when he walked out of the store clutching the bag that held the four red boxes.
“Thanks, Mom.” He gave her a big hug before they walked up the sidewalk to where they’d parked the car. They delivered the coachs’ presents to their homes and Cody gave his teacher her present on the last day of school before the holidays. There was still one more riding lesson on the Tuesday before Christmas and Elana organised with Cody that she would bring the present for Justie with her when she came to pick him up afterwards.
Darien paced about his room. The book he and Justie had picked out for Cody was wrapped and he would have to go down with it in a moment. He looked with indecision over to the table by the window. The raku bowl sat there, winter sun glinting from the swathes of gold on its inner surface. He walked over and picked it up for about the fifteenth time and then placed it down again, shaking his head. He wanted her to have it but how could he give it to her? Especially in front of Justie – he would not be able to convince his sister of his indifference if he was seen giving gifts to Elana. He was far from indifferent, anyway, but it was better that neither girl knew anything of the feelings that were warring inside of him. For as much as he understood he should not expose himself, in his mind the bowl was not his. It belonged to her. And whenever he looked at it all he saw was her – it was a distraction that had to go. He took one last long look at it then picked up Cody’s present and headed out the door.
He arrived at the barn just as Cody was finished currying his horse. Darien stopped in the doorway and stood still. Elana was leaning against the loose box, watching her son. She was wearing old jeans and a heavy sweater, her hair caught back in an elastic, a few strands falling free. He knew she would probably already be there but still the sight of her hit him with as much force as if he hadn’t expected to see her. He hoped that she wouldn’t notice his presence too quickly – he wanted time just to gaze upon her unguarded expression. Lanea would have just that same look as she watched her fledgling hawk. The same dappled light on her cheeks, only filtered through trees and not a barn window.
Darien heard Justie come in from the riding ring. She was shaking a bell-covered halter and singing Jingle Bell Rock. He quickly moved forward and turned his head in her direction.
“Look what I found,” she cried. “Now all we need is some snow and a sled, though I guess a hay wagon will have to do.”
“I’m sure Lina would love to go carolling with you sitting on bales of hay.”
Justie giggled. “Can’t you just see it?” Then she turned to Elana. “Would you like to come with us?”
“When is this?” asked Elana.
“Oh. I don’t think I’ll have time. We’re having our big dinner that night because Joy and Chandra are spending Christmas day with their families.”
Justie gave Darien a meaningful glance and then said, “So you’re just going to eat leftovers on Christmas day? Why don’t you come to dinner with us?”
“Sorry – I guess I gave you the wrong idea.” Elana sounded startled, and then continued almost apologetically. “I’m cooking a small turkey for Cody and Sam and me on Christmas day. For Christmas Eve we’re having something different – but thanks for the invitation.”
“We’ll have you two over for dinner another time then, right Darien?” Justie had a distinct twinkle in her eyes when she looked at her brother.
He remained as unaffected as possible and answered with polite formality. “Of course. I hope you will be able to make it next time.”
Cody came out of the stall at that moment, smiled at everyone, and walked over to Elana. “I’m all done! Mom, did you bring it?”
She took her hands from behind her back and handed him the box.
“I got this for you,” he said, holding it out to Justie, and then he shot his mother a quick glance, “but it’s really for both of you to share. Merry Christmas.”
Justie gave Cody a hug as she took the present, thanking him and saying that Hot Chocolates were her favourite. Darien crouched down to his eye level. “Thanks Cody, we have something for you too.” He handed Cody the present and then tousled his hair. “Have a good Christmas – both of you.” He looked up to Elana as he said this and then stood, without taking his eyes from her.
“Thank you. You have a good Christmas too – C’mon Cody, we’d better get home.” Elana took her son’s hand and they both waved.
Justie accompanied them out of the barn, but Darien stayed where he was and just looked over at the spot where Elana had stood earlier. Nothing but dust motes floating in the patches of filtered light remained, but he could clearly see a vision of Lanea, hazel eyes troubled. Lanea preparing to defend the honour of her people, her courage a thin tight line stretched to the point of breaking. As the scene developed more fully he turned back to the door. He needed to get to his computer to pound out the way the cold air felt upon her face as she came out from under the trees into the brisk wind and called her hawk to her wrist. The way her footsteps echoed softly through the forest as she clambered up the rocky trail, coming ever closer to the disturbing mist that hid the crest of the mountain.
The mountain mist dissipated. Justie was suddenly in front of him, her hands on her hips. “I hope you will be able to make it next time? What kind of an invitation was that? I left it open for you to invite them for New Year’s Day.”
“And I left it even more open then that,” said Darien.
“One of those meaningless invitations like let’s go for coffee sometime!”
“I didn’t like the spot you put me in.”
“Well if I didn’t put the onus on you, you wouldn’t have said anything,” Justie said reasonably.
“And I would have preferred it that way. I’ll see you later, Justie, I have to get back to some business on my computer.”
“If I didn’t know any better I’d say you were caught up in some weird cyber world, the amount of time you spend on your computer.”
Darien grinned. “Nothing quite so exciting, just boring contracts to read and letters to write.”
“Promise me you won’t be at it all night,” said Justie, laying her hand upon his arm. “All work and no play makes Darien a bit of a recluse.”
“I’ll spend the evening with you, I promise,” Darien said as he strode off, but once the mists had cleared again and he had left Lanea safely holed up with a small band of loyal mountain folk, it was almost nine-thirty and his dinner was waiting in the microwave.
Elana put the red ball a little higher on the tree this time. Smeagol was having too much fun removing the lower decorations and scattering them all over the living room. The tree still looked great, though. Sam had brought it in a week before, cut from somewhere in the backfield. It was nothing special, just a young Douglas fir – sparse and a little lopsided, but the decorations and lights had transformed it. And now the growing pile of presents under it made it all the more intriguing.
Sam had lit the fire, and the house was warm from cooking. All that was left was for the guests to arrive – Carl and Colin.
“Have you seen those Christmas napkins I bought?” called Chandra from the kitchen.
“I think they’re in the cupboard above the fridge,” Elana answered as she moved another decoration away from Smeagol’s batting paw. “Silly kitty! Can’t you just be satisfied with the ones you already have?” As if in answer of this question Smeagol did a running dive and attacked a little clothespin drummer boy, sending him flying across the room. Elana laughed and shook her head, then returned to the kitchen to see if the spinach quiche was ready to come out of the oven yet.
“Stop picking at the mushroom tarts, Chandra.”
“Who, me?” said Chandra, swallowing quickly.
Joy came in the room just as Elana was taking the quiche out of the oven. “Don’t turn it off yet – I want to put the cabbage rolls back in for a bit.”
“There’s the door,” Chandra cried. “I can’t get it – I’m having enough trouble trying to fold these napkins into mangers – what was Martha Stewart thinking? Cody! Can you get it?”
Cody put the knives and forks down on the table in a pile. “Sure – I can’t remember which side of the plates to put these on anyway.” He ran from the room and soon they heard him talking to someone.
Elana wiped her hands on her apron and took it off. “I guess I can go out and entertain whoever it is now, though it has to be one of your boyfriends.”
“I won’t be a minute,” said Joy.
Carl was standing in the middle of the living room, holding a bag of presents in one hand and a single wrapped box in the other.
“Who are you? Santa?” asked Elana, giving him an awkward hug. “Can I take that stuff and put it under the tree?’
“I can do it,” said Carl, “but this one isn’t from me. I found it on the porch. Here.” He passed her the present and went to unload his bag under the tree.
“Who would leave a present on the porch?” asked Elana as she looked at the gift card. “It just says Elana on it and nothing else.”
“Don’t ask me – I thought you would know. Maybe Sam left it there.”
“No, he’s already put his under the tree.”
Joy came into the room then and got a much better hug from Carl than Elana did, and a kiss to go with it. “Merry Christmas Eve, beautiful.”
Elana put the present under the tree, still puzzled about it. It was wrapped in blue, green, and gold paper, with an even darker blue satin bow. Elana was printed in concise block letters on a gold card. There was no message at all, but hopefully there would be something inside to indicate whom it was from. The options were not unlimited. She barely knew anyone, and besides her family who had mailed all her presents weeks in advance, all her best friends would be there that night.
Colin and Sam arrived almost simultaneously a few minutes later. Neither of them knew anything about the present.
“Seems to me,” said Chandra who had just come in from the kitchen, “that you have a secret admirer.”
“Maybe it’s from one of your business contacts,” Joy said.
“Your back ordered mister heads!” Chandra cried. “Specially wrapped for Christmas – you’ll find the packing slip enclosed.”
“That makes about as much sense as anything else I can think of,” said Elana.
“So open it already!”
“No – I’ll save it for Christmas morning just like all the rest of my presents.”
“The suspense is going to kill me!” Chandra reached under the tree for the package. “I’ll rip it open for you right now.”
Colin grabbed her from behind and pulled her away from the tree. “No you don’t. If you are so desperate to open a present, open one of the ones I’ve brought.”
“This one,” he said, and he turned her in his arms and kissed her firmly on the lips.
“Oooh, I like that one.” Chandra slipped her arms around his neck. “Could I have another peek?”
He put his mouth to her ear. “Ask me later and I’ll give you more than just a peek.”
Elana pretended to cough discreetly. “Do I smell something burning? I think dinner must be ready.”
The meal was delicious. Afterwards they all sat around the fire singing Christmas carols. Later they were each allowed to open one present. Everyone wanted Elana to open the mystery present but she chose a small one that had been sent by her parents. It was a pendant – a silver bird with its wings spread in flight. Cody opened his present from Justie and Darien. It was a book about the care and grooming of horses. The others all opened the presents Cody had given them – he’d insisted on it. Chandra and Joy both got Christmas socks, Sam got a chain for hanging his reading glasses around his neck, and Carl got new blades for his razor.
“You already gave me a gift, sport,” said Colin as Cody handed over his present.
“Just open it,” Cody said, grinning.
It was a picture from the pizza party, enlarged on Chandra’s computer. Colin was sitting at the table with about half the team crowding behind him, each boy trying to make a sillier face than the other.
“My best present yet!” he laughed.
On Christmas morning Elana finally opened the mystery present. She’d left it till last, wanting to spend time on all the gifts from Cody and her family and all her friends. She was surrounded by boxes with soft fluffy scarves, sweaters, and socks sticking out from them. Books, kitchen gadgets and chocolates. Cody placed the box in her hands.
“Well, here goes nothing,” she said as she slipped off the blue satin bow and tore into the wrapping.
“Anyone want to lay a bet?” asked Chandra.
A simple box with no markings was revealed. Elana opened it, lifted out a few layers of tissue and then stared, speechless.
“Well? Not the backordered misters?”
“No,” Elana said, her voice awed. “Which one of you bought me this?” She took the bowl out carefully, cupping it gently with her palms. The pink, the green, the gold and the charcoal were all as perfectly placed as she remembered. “Joy? You knew I wanted it.”
“It wasn’t me,” Joy said. “If I bought it would I have got you a sweater too? I wish I’d thought of it, though.”
“Don’t look at me – I gave you dangly earrings.” Chandra reached out to take it from her. “Is this the same bowl you told me about – the one that got sold at the fair before you could buy it?”
“Yes,” said Elana softly. “It’s my bowl. But if it wasn’t you two, who . . .”
“Santa,” Cody said.
“Somebody obviously knew you wanted it,” said Chandra.
“But there is no one else who could know. And don’t try to tell me that the potter wanted me to have it so badly that instead of offering me a deal on it he discovered my name and address, hid it away until Christmas, and then secretly left it on my doorstep. That’s about as believable as Santa.”
“Well, I never told Carl about it, if that’s what you’re thinking,” Joy said.
“He did bring it into the house,” said Elana. “We only have his word to say it was left on my porch.”
“Why wouldn’t he just give it to you then, instead of buying the scarf and gloves I helped him pick out?”
“Maybe he thought I would think it was too expensive – I don’t know.”
“Don’t question it,” Chandra said, passing the bowl back to Elana. “It’s yours now – enjoy it.”
“Oh I will.” Elana caressed the interior of the bowl. “I just wish I knew who to thank.”
The rest of her Christmas day was quiet but very sweet. She spoke at length on the phone to her parents and her sisters while the turkey dinner cooked itself, as turkey dinners do so well. She and Cody read books and played with Smeagol. Sam came and spent the evening with them, telling tales of his youthful adventures that took him the length and breadth of Vancouver Island. Elana suspected they were much embellished, but that only added to their charm. After tucking a contented Cody into bed a little after midnight, she was ready to fall into her own.
The raku bowl sat upon her dresser, looking as if it had been made for the room. She was completely unable to decipher the mystery of its appearance on her doorstep, but she was beyond caring now. It fit. It was hers. That was enough.
The week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve was quiet and uneventful. A light dusting of snow fell and Elana and Cody tried to make a snowman, without much luck. Cody had no school, but for Elana there was still much work to be done as she planted flat after flat with seeds. Cody helped her and Sam part of the time but he also went out to play with friends or had them over. Their plans for New Year's Eve were much the same as those for Christmas: dinner, a quiet evening, and then a dozen grapes each at midnight before running out into the still night to bang pots and pans together. Sam was going to build a great bonfire and after the noise making they were to roast marshmallows as they watched myriad sparks dance into the night sky
Darien had a quiet New Year’s Eve too. Lina was determined to coax him into going to the party she and Justie were attending, but no amount of pouting, cajoling, or stalking about in a state close to fury could change his decision not to go out.
“You two enjoy your evening,” he said with finality. “And I’ll enjoy mine.”
“But you’ll be all alone,” said Lina, sitting on the arm of his chair and stroking his cheek. “I’m almost tempted to stay at home and keep you company so you have someone to ring in the new year with.”
“Not on your life!” Justie grabbed her arm and pulled her up. “If Darien wants to be a hermit, let him. I’m not arriving at that party by myself, and I’m not staying home on New Year’s Eve while my brother types away on his computer. Anyway, I want to meet this really cute guy you keep telling me about.”
“Oh yes – Greg! He is so perfect for you. He’d be perfect for me if I wasn’t already taken.”
“You’re taken?” asked Justie. “Who’s the lucky guy?”
“Darien, darling, tell your sister not to be so . . .”
“Obnoxious? Obvious? Obtuse? Obfuscatory?”
“I’m not being obfuscatory,” Justie said, giggling. “You are.”
Lina stamped her foot. “I have no idea what either of you is talking about! Darien this is your last chance or I’m going without you.”
“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you all night, Lina. Go, and have a good time.”
Lina groaned in annoyance, grabbed her jacket, flounced out of the room, and slammed the door behind her.
“I’d better follow her before she leaves without me,” said Justie giving her brother a quick kiss on the forehead. “I hope this guy is worth it.”
Darien laughed and then sat back in his chair to enjoy the luxurious quiet. The last thing he wanted was to be at some noisy party making inane conversation he could barely hear and having Lina act as if he belonged to her. If he was really honest with himself there was only one person he really wanted to be with, but she was completely and totally wrong for him. He had to get over his pointless longing. He had to stop letting her infiltrate his thoughts as relentlessly as she did. He had to finish the book and eliminate her from his mind. Lanea was stumbling through bushes, leading him towards the climax of his story. And as long as her tale was unresolved Elana would be constantly in his thoughts.
The solution was just too easy. He went up to his room and typed furiously. He couldn’t understand why, when he finally looked away from his computer monitor two hours later Lanea was no closer to resolving anything and, in fact, mired deeper in problems than she had been before he had begun. He wondered what had distracted him from the trail of letters he was leaving upon the white screen in front of him, and became aware of the sound of banging coming from outside. He looked back at the corner of his monitor. 12:02. Midnight. He’d practically missed midnight. The clanging outside stopped, but he got up anyway and walked over to the window.
A fire was burning like a beacon through the trees. He opened his window and leaned out into velvet darkness. The night was mild. The air smelled of wood smoke - fir and cedar. Three figures ranged in front of the blaze - shadowy silhouettes that wandered between darkness and light. He sat on the sill and thought of being there by the bonfire with them. Of the fire’s glow upon her face, flames glinting in her eyes, and he let his mind travel where he never allowed it go.
Later he translated it all upon the screen – wavering black font against the bright white. Unlike the situation with him and Elana, there had been someone at that fire for Lanea. In fiction complications could be dissolved with a few lines. Life was nothing like that.
The weather continued mild through to the middle of January when soccer season started again. It was a big difference for Elana and Cody who were used to subzero weather and snow for most of the winter, not drizzly, spring-like days. The fields were wet and muddy, and Elana suspected that Cody was slide checking more than usual just for the sensation of slipping through the mud on his side. As Elana shoved the grimy socks, jersey and shorts into her washer she thought back to the game. Darien Stewart had been on the sidelines on the opposite side of the field for a good deal of it. He’d spoken to Colin at half time and waved at Cody, but thankfully hadn’t come across to where she was. It still bothered her that he had been there, though. Why had he come? She turned the dials and closed the washer with a bit more force than she’d intended. She was standing over it trying to curb her annoyance when the phone rang.
Elana ran into the kitchen and grabbed the phone before the answering machine kicked in. It was the bus station. Her father had shipped a trunk loaded with stuff he had found in the attic and it was there for pick-up. Just when she thought she might have time to sit back and drink a cup of tea, something always came up. She grabbed a note pad and scribbled a shopping list to take advantage of the trip into town, then quickly tied her hair back in a ponytail and threw on a jacket. She bought her groceries first and then drove to the bus station where the attendant loaded the trunk into the back of her station wagon.
When she got home Sam was nowhere around, so she opened the front door and the door to her bedroom in readiness and then went to get the trunk out of her car by herself. It was heavier than she expected, but she managed to drag it out, breaking one of the side handles in the process. With her hands underneath the two ends, she awkwardly hefted it out and up, and then turned towards the house. And with the turn her back twinged so sharply that she staggered and almost dropped the trunk. It was slipping from her grasp. As she struggled to regain her hold of it, her load suddenly lightened. For a moment all she could do was stand with her eyes closed, holding the spot where her back had cramped up.
“Thanks Sam . . . I think I pulled a muscle. Can you take it into the house for me?”
“Why were you trying to carry something so heavy by yourself?”
Elana’s eyes flew open. The voice was not Sam’s. Darien Stewart was looking at her over the top of the trunk. “Are you okay?” he asked.
She tried to walk and winced. “I’m fine.”
“You don’t look fine. Let me get this into the house and then I’ll see what I can do . . .”
“I can take care of myself,” said Elana as she began hobbling towards the house.
Darien followed her. When he got to the living room he looked around. “Where do you want it?”
“Just put it down anywhere.”
“If I do that you’ll just have to move it again, and you’re in no condition to. I can put it where it needs to go.”
“I can get Sam to do it later.”
“I’m here now, and I’m already holding it, and may I remind you that it’s heavy? Do you want me to put my back out too?”
Elana gave up. She had no idea where Darien Stewart had come from or why he was helping her but her back hurt so much that she wasn’t going to argue with him. “It . . . it goes in my bedroom. Through that door. You can put it against the wall by the wardrobe.” ‘My God,’ she thought suddenly, ‘He’s going into my bedroom. I hope I made the bed this morning. I hope there’s no underwear lying around.’
She heard him drop the trunk to the ground and expected him to come out again right away, but he didn’t and everything was silent. She dragged herself to the doorway and looked into her room. He was just standing in the middle of the floor staring at her bed.
Darien stood up from placing the trunk against the wall and was about to leave the room when the carving on the wardrobe caught his eye. He’d seen that bird before. He ran his hand across the twisted vines that curved above the mirror and then looked around the room. The dresser was there too, and the bed – only the bird on the headboard was missing a wing. What was his mother’s old furniture doing in Elana’s bedroom? He remembered when his dad had sold it, after his mom had died. He’d asked to be able to keep it but his dad had said it was just old junk. In the past few years he’d looked, but he’d never found furniture like it anywhere, and now here it was, right next door to him in Elana’s bedroom, of all places. Had it been here all along?
His eyes lit upon the dresser and there sat the raku bowl looking completely at home on the golden oak. It had been right to give it to her, so right.
He turned and saw Elana in the doorway, looking tense and just a little angry, and he realised he must have been standing in her bedroom staring at her furniture for quite some time. Rather than explain himself he walked towards her and asked her how she was feeling.
“Can I get you anything? Some Advil? An icepack? A heat pad?”
“What were you doing?”
“Sorry – I was just admiring your furniture. It’s very unique.”
“Yes, it is.” She spoke in short, clipped tones and he could only imagine that she must be in pain.
“I shouldn’t be here disturbing you,” he said softly. “Are you sure I can’t do anything for you before I go?”
“No – I’m going to have a hot bath and then rub on some MSM.”
“Sounds good,” he said as he walked across the living room. “Don’t forget to add some bubble bath.”
“What did you come here for anyway?” she asked, just before he left the house.
Darien stopped, momentarily confused, and then he realised that she meant initially, before he’d rescued her. “I was looking for Sam.”
“He’s not around. I’ll tell him the next time I see him.”
“Thanks. Now take care of yourself, okay?”
She looked at him strangely. “Thank you for your help.”
Elana lay back in the hot water. She had almost not added the bubbles, just because he had suggested them, but now she was glad she had. They smelled good, and though they did nothing to ease the pain in her back, they were cheerful. And God knows she needed cheering up after that episode. Why did it have to be Darien Stewart, of all people, on the spot to witness her doing something stupid? Why hadn’t she waited until Sam came home? Then <I>he</I> wouldn’t have come into her house – into her bedroom. <I>He</I> wouldn’t have patronised her about her injury. Why had he taken so long in her bedroom anyway? What would he see in her old furniture to admire? She was sure he’d made that up. She loved the bedroom set but she knew a person like him would look down on something so old and worn. No – there was some other reason, but what? Did he just do it to aggravate her? Because if he had, he’d succeeded.
After she dried off, Elana rubbed MSM on her back as well as she could. When Cody came home from school, she’d get him to do it for her. She put on her pyjamas and lay down on the bed. Hopefully she would feel better soon – there was too much work for her to do.
The next day Elana’s back was still sore, but she could walk around without much trouble. She decided that if she avoided lifting, she might still be able to get some planting done, so she asked Sam to help her out. As they worked together in the greenhouse she aired all her frustrations about Darien Stewart.
“I don’t know why he was looking for you – he didn’t say,” she said after telling him about the incident of the day before.
“At least he was there to help you. If I know you, you would have dragged that damn trunk into the house by yourself, strained back and all, and you’d have laid yourself up in bed for weeks.”
“He’s just so arrogant. He couldn’t help me without being critical,” Elana said, and then she put on a sarcastic voice. “<I>Why were you trying to carry something so heavy by yourself</I>?”
“He had a point there,” said Sam. “It <I>was</I> too heavy for you.”
“Not really – I just turned badly – that’s all.”
Sam sighed and shook his head at her. “I know you think you can do everything for yourself, but there is a limit.”
“We’re not talking about me – we’re talking about Darien Stewart. Why am I stuck with such an annoying neighbour?”
“I know he rubs you the wrong way, and I’m not saying he’s not to blame, but don’t sell him short.”
Elana ripped open a bag of seeds and began planting them into the flats that Sam was preparing. “He’s such a jerk.”
“You know, there’s more to him than meets the eye. He’s got a restless soul. He’s a writer – quite successful, I’d say.”
“Darien Stewart? I’ve never heard of him. Does he write horse breeding manuals or something?”
Sam laughed. “Fiction – but he writes under a different name. Nobody around here knows about it.”
“So what’s he write? Supermarket paperbacks he’s embarrassed about?” Elana said with scorn.
“I guess you could call it Fantasy, but it’s not the usual quest stuff. It’s very poetic, almost abstract.”
“Abstract? Him? What makes you think it’s the same guy?”
“Just a minute.”
Sam left the greenhouse and returned five minutes later with a hardback novel. The cover was green and misty with branches stretching low over a still pool of water. <I>Greenday Shadows</I>, F. D. Austen was written across the bottom in spare, dark letters. Elana held her hand out and took the book, turned it over, read the back jacket, the title page – could see nothing that identified it as the work of Darien Stewart. Nothing. Especially the words that jumped out at her off the page. <I>Trees stand in broken shadows, sifting air from past mountain journeys – who knows where it may have travelled?</I> She could not imagine him writing that. Ever. Sam was an old hippie – as much as she loved him, she knew he’d fried his brains on acid in his youth. Obviously he was imagining things.
“This proves nothing.”
“Elana – I’m one of the few people who know Darien’s full name. I was at his christening. His mother was a flower child. She had auburn hair to her waist, long flowing dresses and bare feet – she looked like a naiad. Sarah Austen – that was her name. His father – Freddy Stewart – he was from Beacon Hill. His family was the cream of Victoria society. They had old money, but he was rebelling like the rest of us in the late sixties. We were on a back to the land trip, so many of us came up island here to farm – raise goats – find spiritual awareness. Not all of them smoked too much of what they grew like I did. Anyway, we were close back then. Darien was never called by his first name; dropped it years ago. But I was there. Sarah named him Freedom Darien Austen Stewart. F.D. Austen – you see?”
“Yeah – later most people thought the F, stood for Freddy, after his dad. But it was 1969 – they were idealists. Sarah was always a flower child; ten years after she called her daughter Justice Moonbeam. Poor kid. But as far as I know she’s never been called anything but Justie.”
“But – Darien acts like he doesn’t even know you.”
“After Sarah died Freddy changed. He threw his heart into working and made that place a thriving business. Lost touch with all us burnt-out hippies. I’ll say this for Darien – he has no idea who I am, and I’m not about to disillusion him.”
“You’re his godfather?” Elana was shocked, but the pieces all seemed to fit.
“That’s what brought me here, close by, where I can at least keep an eye on him – know he’s doing okay.”
“But he needs to know! He thinks . . .”
“It doesn’t matter what he thinks. He’s right. I’ve wasted my life.”
“No you haven’t Sam. I hate to think what would have happened to Cody and me without you here to help us. I look up to you so very much. Success is not measured in monetary terms but in how you influence the people around you. You are my inspiration. Really.”
Sam looked at her and smiled. “Take the book. Read it. Give him a chance.”
The book ended up in Elana’s bookshelf but she couldn’t read it, even for Sam’s sake. Whenever she saw it she just couldn’t equate the book with the man. Or his name. Freedom? It hardly seemed likely only it was an incredible tale for Sam to have invented – and to what purpose? To try and change Elana’s opinion of the guy? All Sam’s good intentions couldn’t change Darien Stewart’s attitude. He didn’t deserve a godfather as dedicated as Sam.
The mild weather suddenly ended in early February when the temperature plummeted and the mornings dawned clear and crisp and white with frost. The heaters in the two heated greenhouses had to be turned up and Elana was glad that she had not yet put any flats out into the four cold frames. During the middle of the day when the temperature went above freezing, Elana and Sam madly worked on wrapping all exposed water pipes with insulation to prepare for the even colder weather that was forecast.
That evening Elana went out to check on the greenhouses. She put on her winter boots from back east that she’d not had much opportunity to wear, a thick wool jacket, and the scarf and mittens she’d got for Christmas from Carl. It was chilly – about five below zero - but dressed as she was Elana barely felt the cold, only an invigorating tingle upon her cheeks. After ensuring that the heaters were all running properly she was tempted to walk on into the back of the property. The moon was large, brightening the night through a wide gap in the mostly overcast sky. The clouds themselves turned the sky into an almost solid sheet of pearl grey. Everything was quiet and still, the only sound her boots scrunching on the frozen ground. It was a beautiful, magical, wondrous night.
Unbelievably he was done. The last word was typed. Lanea was finally able to rest, home again in her valley, and he would be haunted no more by visions of her. But instead of the feeling of supreme satisfaction at having purged himself of all those conflicting emotions that had overtaken him for the last few months, Darien felt empty. Hollow. Alone. And restless. He read the ending again and again, wanting to write more, but there was nothing more to write.
He pushed his chair back – it was time to check on the horses anyway. There was always a feeling of loss at the end of a book, but it had never been so great as this. Good thing he had the horses to think of instead.
The barn was cold, but the blanketed horses all seemed comfortable in their stalls, and their water was not frozen. Darien left the stables and walked out into the bright night, past the riding ring and on into the sparse forest of Douglas fir and hemlock. He knew the trails so well that even in the shadow of the woods he could find his way. The trees broadened out into a clearing. It was the very spot where he had first met Cody and together they had found the hole in the fence. It was still there – he had not yet fixed it – and absently he walked through the gap while his mind travelled back to his book and made the progression from Lanea to Elana.
Was that the reason for the melancholy that had enveloped him? Did he now feel cut off from Elana? But that was what he had wanted – to be free of his obsession. And then, slowly as he walked, he realised that he had no desire to be free of her at all. It was Lanea that he had flushed out of his system – but Elana he refused to let go. The emptiness he felt was because he no longer had Lanea to bring her to him – to give him the reason to keep her foremost in his mind. He had struggled for months against this realisation but now he could no longer deny it to himself. For better or for worse he was in love with her. And the strength of his love surprised him as it began overpowering his senses.
He needed time to think; but suddenly, instead, the trees parted again and he found himself face to face with her under the moon. And there was only one thing he was capable of doing. He put his arms around her and brought his mouth down to her startled face and kissed her. Until that moment he hadn’t actually been sure that she was real, but her heart beat through their thick jackets against him and her lips were soft and warm. He had to stop before he lost himself in a flood of emotion. He held her out so that he could see her face, her eyes large and luminous under the light of the moon, and tried to make some sense of the thoughts that were swirling in his head.
Elana stared up at Darien, not really believing what had just happened. He’d kissed her. It was not some light, little, lip-brushing kiss, nor was it rough and invasive. It was warm and powerful and tender all at once. And completely confusing. She knew she should be angry, but she was still too surprised for anger.
Words stumbled out of his mouth. “Elana, I never expected this . . . I’ve struggled against my feelings for a long time now . . . I thought I could control them . . . I couldn’t admit that I had fallen for someone like you . . .With your background. Divorced. With a child. In that broken down house next door that I wanted gone . . . But I have. I can’t do anything about it . . . I love you.” He paused, and then repeated firmly, “I love you.”
He leaned forward and kissed her again. Softly. But she barely felt it. Her body, her mind, everything was numb.
“Goodnight,” he whispered. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” Then he let her go and walked back into the trees from where he had come.
Elana did not move. She stood, staring after him until she no longer heard the sound of his passage through the frozen woods.
By the time Elana reached the house the clouds had completely covered the moon and soft, light snowflakes had begun to fall. She was shaking – not with cold but with anger that had been growing steadily since she had watched Darien Stewart walk off into the trees. Elana slammed the door hard and kicked off her boots into a corner of the laundry room. She was just struggling with her jacket zipper when Chandra walked in.
“What’s with the noise?” she asked, then she did a double take when she saw Elana’s face. “What’s wrong? Is there a problem with the greenhouses?”
“The greenhouses are fine.” Elana couldn’t keep a tremor out of her voice.
“Well, something’s up. You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“Wish it had been a ghost!”
“What happened out there?”
“Don’t ask! I don’t want to talk about it.”
Chandra reached out and pulled down the zipper that Elana’s shaking hands hadn’t been able to budge. “I’m just making cocoa. Want some?”
“Oh yes, please.” Elana took a few deep breaths to calm herself as she hung up her jacket, then she followed Chandra into the kitchen. “It’s starting to snow – that wasn’t on the forecast.”
“Weathermen!” Chandra said with scorn. “Do they ever get it right? Don’t worry about it. There’ll probably only be a few flurries and then it’ll stop.”
“I don’t mind if it snows – I like snow.”
“Not the kind we get – it’s a real pain. It’s wet and mushy and no one knows how to drive in it.”
The hot cocoa only soothed Elana for a short time. She lay in her bed unable to sleep as the scene in the forest played over and over again in her mind. Was the man insane? She shuddered. How could she have let him kiss her like that and then just stand there and do nothing? The worst thing was that the kiss should have been awful, but it wasn’t awful. What was wrong with her? Had it been so long since she had been kissed that some crazed guy could come up and kiss her and her and her body would respond? She hated Darien. Hated! And yet she’d just stood there and let him do it. She wiped the back of her hand against her mouth for about the hundredth time but it did nothing to erase the sensation that still remained there.
And then there was all that stuff he had said. He loved her? What kind of BS was that? They’d barely ever spoken to each other. And he sure had a low opinion of her. What did he mean by <I>someone like you</I>? He knew nothing about her. So what if she was divorced. So what if she had a kid. Did that make her some kind of leper? How on earth did the house she lived in define her as a person, especially as she had nothing to do with the terrible shape it had been in before she had moved in?
Anyway, what was he doing kissing her when he had a girlfriend? Did he think because she was such a low class person that he could just screw around with her on the side? She ought to have slapped his arrogant face, or kicked him right in the . . . instead she’d just let him kiss her again. He probably thought . . . that she’d liked it. That she’d wanted it. Well, she’d straighten that out next time she saw him.
Her blankets were all tangled from her restless twisting about. Elana got out of bed and tried to remake it. She needed to forget about that creep and get some sleep. She heard Cody’s door open and close as he went to the bathroom, and then the padding of his footsteps as he came up beside her.
“Mom! Look out the window. It’s snowing!” His eyes were glowing in the dim light. “It’s finally snowing!”
Elana looked out the window for the first time that night. The light flurries had turned into large, steadily falling flakes. The trees were transformed, their layered branches white and drooping. The ground was covered but for some bare patches under the trees.
“Can I stay in your bed with you for a bit and watch it?”
“Sure thing. Let’s both get in under the blankets before we start shivering.”
Elana finally fell into a deep sleep with Cody snuggled up against her as the snow continued to fall, the sky white with such a profusion of flakes it seemed they were joined in an almost solid sheet before ever touching the ground.
She was in a dark wood. Weird shadows swooped and fell as light beams arced across the sky, breaking against the trees. Irregular pounding noises echoed through the night. And distant animals called to each other in the depths of the blackness. Fear gripped her. The sounds were coming nearer, the lights more distracting. She started pulling herself up through the trees – higher, higher. Branches closed in. The air was fetid. Unbearable. She was gasping, her throat almost raw.
And suddenly she was awake, her blankets tight around her and Cody sleeping heavily on her chest. But the sounds persisted – distant voices and banging – and careening shadows cast from swinging lights. Elana shook her head to try to clear it and carefully slipped out from underneath Cody. He mumbled and turned in his sleep but did not wake. With her mind still full of the terror of her dream she looked out the window to try to make sense of the noise and the light.
The snow was incredibly deep and still falling – but now it was heavy, wet snow. She could only see formless shapes – nothing that made sense. Trees broke her view and the flashing lights obscured her vision, but something was happening out by her greenhouses.
She ran to the laundry room and threw on her jacket, dug around in the far corner of the room for the snow boots she’d kicked off just a few hours before. She stuck her bare feet into them, stuffed her pyjama pants firmly in, and tied the laces. Hoping there were gloves in her pockets she ran out the door and down the trail. Eerie figures were silhouetted against a greenhouse glowing with opaque light. She was about to run over to them when the sound of plastic rending and a dull crash made her turn her head. Darien Stewart was standing a few feet from her, knife raised in the act of slashing the plastic of one of the greenhouses. Beyond him, great gaping holes made the three other greenhouses look like skeletal frames rising out of the snow.
“What the heck are you doing?” she cried as she ran towards him and grabbed at the arm that was wielding the knife. “Have you completely lost your senses? Why are you wrecking my place?”
“Elana – it’s the snow. It’s too . . .”
Elana didn’t want to hear what he had to say. She’d had a terrible night because of him, and now . . . this senseless, wilful destruction of her property? Everything that had been going through her head for the greater part of the evening suddenly exploded from her.
“I know you don’t like me living here – you made that perfectly clear the first time we met. What do you think you’ll gain by sabotaging my business? You should know by now that nothing will induce me to move. You knock it down and I’ll build it all back up! You know I can – I won’t let you or anything you do stand in my way.”
The figures, voices and lights beyond the other greenhouse, the one that was now behind her, no longer made any impression upon her senses. All that concerned her was Darien and the knife that was in his hand.
He wrested his arm from her grasp. “You don’t understand. I’m trying to . . .”
“You’re right! I don’t understand anything about you. Here you are tearing my place apart and a few hours ago you were coming on to me. And don’t think . . . and don’t think I liked it!” Elana stopped for a breath. Darien had been on the point of moving, but he froze in a half turn, his eyes focused on her face.
“I’m listening,” he said.
The snow was coming down wet upon them, but his voice was colder than the lashing sleet, colder than the air that caught in her throat. Elana was beyond feeling the cold. She was driven by the need to tell Darien exactly what she thought of him before she ordered him off her property forever.
“You are so arrogant, coming here and kissing me like that and then telling me how I’m totally wrong for you but you can’t control your feelings. Your feelings! What about my feelings? Did you even consider them? What have I ever done that would make you think I could possibly want you to kiss me? Or does every girl that you deign to kiss fall at your feet in ecstasy at the privilege? And what about your girlfriend Lina? Is she not <I>giving it out</I>, so you figured why not try the tart next door? After all, <I>someone like me, with my background, divorced, with a child, living in what you consider a hovel</I>, is sure to be dying to get into bed with you! What do you even know about me anyway? And you have the amazing nerve to say that you love me and expect me to believe it?”
Darien hadn’t moved. Melting snow dripped through his hair and down his face but he made no attempt to brush it off. “I do love you.” His words were fragile, like the first paper-thin ice on a pond.
Elana felt compelled say whatever she could to make his admission untrue. The very idea made her sick to the stomach. “How can you stand there and say that to me? You’ve still got the knife in your hand that you’re trashing my greenhouses with. What kind of weird, perverted love is that? Why am I even talking to you? You’re obviously deranged. Look – I’m going to say this very clearly so you’ll understand. I don’t like you. I’ve never liked you. You’ve never done anything that would make me like you. You’re rude, arrogant, conceited, romantically inept, and certifiable. I want you off my property now!” Her voice and her fury had risen together as she spoke, and when she was done she stood, breathing heavily, ready to face whatever confrontation was in store for her.
Darien finally turned his body away, as if they had been playing statues and he had just been allowed to move again, and walked quickly from her to the side of the greenhouse, ripping his knife through the snow and the plastic viciously. She ran after him and grabbed at his arm but he shook her off and kept going until the roof had caved in all the way along and the snow that had covered it was lying in heaps inside the tattered greenhouse.
“Stop! Please damn you, stop! Are you completely insane?” Elana beat on his back with her fists. Her anger was giving way to tears. She felt impotent and helpless against his rampage.
“Let me do this and then I’ll go.”
“Let you slash my greenhouses to shreds? Let you . . .”
Sam came around the other greenhouse, a lantern in one hand and a shovel in the other. “Darien, leave that. We’ve got to get the other heated house cleared before it caves. Here’s a shovel.”
“I’m all done here anyway, Sam, and I’ve already got one,” he said as he picked up a shovel that was leaning against the end of the greenhouse. “Get Colin and Carl in there to buttress it with those two by eights we brought. That should stop it from collapsing before we get all the snow off.” He turned back to Elana and said, so quietly that she almost didn’t hear him, “I get it. You hate me. Just forget I ever said I love you, if that’ll make you feel better. I’m going to finish this then I’ll get out of your life.”
Elana watched as Darien, Sam, and Dennis began shovelling the snow off the greenhouse roof. It was as if, since she had woken from her dream, this was the first time she could see clearly. Before that she’d had tunnel vision. There was almost two feet of snow on the greenhouse and it was creaking under the weight. The light, fluffy snow she and Cody had watched with such pleasure was made heavier by the sleet that was still steadily falling. Colin and Carl dragged unwieldy posts into the greenhouse. She could see their dim shadows propping them under the arches of the roof. She turned and looked at the other greenhouses, the cold frames that were still empty, waiting for warmer weather to have the young plants moved into them. The snow was falling harmlessly through the great holes torn in their roofs.
She looked down at herself. Her jacket was open. Her pyjamas clung wetly to her legs. But she was still impervious to the cold. All except for her hands, which had started shaking. She put them in her jacket pockets and found gloves, put them on, and then went in search of a shovel.
Dawn was weakly erasing the darkness when they finished clearing the greenhouse roof. But now that there was no more mindless shovelling, the enormity of what had happened hit Elana in wave after shocking wave. She was no longer resistant to the cold. It seeped through her legs, her hands and her face right into her bones, compounding the misery she already felt in her soul.
She couldn’t face the men, even to offer her thanks. She put her shovel in the shed and went into the house through the laundry room door. For some reason Joy was there, helping her out of her wet things and wrapping her up in a blanket. She was led to the living room where a fire was burning, giving off more warmth and comfort then she thought existed in the world. She crumpled onto the carpet and clung to Joy who stroked her hair and whispered consolingly.
“It’s all right. You’ve saved them. All of you – together. Isn’t it wonderful how the men came?”
“I was sleeping,” said Elana into Joy’s shoulder. “Where did they come from? How did they know? I could have lost everything.”
“Chandra told me that Darien Stewart came over and woke Sam up and called the others, I guess they didn’t want to disturb us.” Joy hugged Elana closer as she suddenly broke into sobs. “Hush. Everything’s fine. Chandra and I have been up for a couple of hours. I even made this fire. Aren’t you proud of me?” Elana nodded her head. Her sobs turned to ragged whimpers as Joy continued to speak in her soft reassuring voice. “Chandra’s taken cocoa and sandwiches over to Darien’s place with the guys. She invited them in here but they decided to go there and give you some peace and quiet. They were right – you’re completely worn out.”
“He wouldn’t want to come in here anyway, not after . . .” Elana broke off as she remembered Darien’s last words to her. How had he managed to speak so calmly after all the things she had said to him?
“What’s that, Honey?” said Joy, leaning her head closer to Elana’s in an attempt to hear her muffled words.
“Oh Joy! I’m such a blind fool! I’ve done something so very terrible – I don’t know how I can face anybody ever again.”
Elana began crying once more and refused to say anything else when Joy asked her what she meant. So Joy just held her, rocking back and forth and rubbing her back until she quietened. They sat like that until Joy had to get up and stoke the waning fire. Then Elana just lay on the carpet and stared into the flames.
What had she done? She had accused Darien of destroying her property when all the time he’d been trying to save it. He’d woken Sam – organised everything. Without him her greenhouses would surely have collapsed and she’d have lost everything she’d worked so hard for all fall and winter. Her livelihood was saved because of him. If he hadn’t have been such a jerk earlier in the night would she have realised what was going on when she’d gone outside to check? Would she have listened to him when he’d tried to explain what he was doing there? Or would she still have made a complete and utter fool of herself?
It was hard for her to believe that he had done what he had, even though the evidence was right before her eyes, even though she’d worked alongside him to clear the snow off the last house. Darien Stewart – the guy who despised the very existence of her greenhouse business. He’d come to her rescue. Was he nicer than she’d realised? Or had he done it out of love? She had no idea how she felt about his love now. A few hours ago the concept had filled her with nausea, but now she didn’t know what to think. It didn’t matter anyway because by now he hated her just as much as she hated him. Only she couldn’t feel that same depth of animosity anymore. Not after what he’d done to help her. She had to face the fact that she had totally misjudged him. And as she tried to come to terms with her shame about the things she’d said to him, she attempted to equate the man who went out of his way in the middle of the night to help a neighbour with the one who had told her that he loved her against his will and despite what a terrible sort of person he thought she was.
Joy finally managed to get Elana to sit in the armchair, which she had moved close to the fire. She tucked another blanket around her and then went to the kitchen to fetch her a hot drink and a sandwich. Elana sipped the cocoa absently but didn’t even touch the food. The flames danced and flickered before her eyes. She watched the patterns they made, studied the variations of colour – from white to blue to yellow to orange – and followed the sparks as they broke off and rose to disappear up the chimney. Eventually she fell asleep. Joy removed the cup from her limp fingers before the cold chocolate spilled all over her lap.
Darien slumped in his chair after everyone had gone. There was a cold cup of coffee in front of him and a plate with a partially eaten sandwich. After the sleepless night, the realisation of the danger from the snow, the frenetic work in the dark and bitter cold, and Elana’s sudden angry and accusatory outburst, his mind was only capable of focusing on one thing. She hated him.
Justie came through the doorway into the kitchen and looked around. “That must have been some party.”
Darien barely moved his head to acknowledge her presence.
“Who was here? What happened? You look terrible.” She began picking up the mugs and plates that were scattered over the table and putting them in the dishwasher.
Darien rubbed his eyes and took a sip of his coffee, and then pushed it away with a shudder. “Is there any left in the pot?” he asked.
Justie went over to the coffeemaker. “It looks like sludge. Do you want me to make a fresh pot?”
“Don’t bother,” he said as he leaned his elbows on the table and rested his head in his hands. “I’d probably let it go cold again. I’m not capable of anything right now.”
“Are you going to tell me about it or should I hunt for clues?” She picked up a plate and motioned with it. “Colin always leaves his crust.” Then she looked inside a mug and poured what was left in it down the drain. “Extra cream. Carl was here.”
“We were out saving the greenhouses.”
Darien nodded. “It snowed like crazy last night – they would have collapsed.”
“She called you to help her?”
“No. I – I got up in the night and saw all the snow and got worried so I went out to check on them, then I woke up Sam and called the others on my cell.”
“What about Elana?”
“We decided not to disturb her . . . but she woke up anyway.”
“She must have been glad to see you guys out there.”
Darien gave a hollow laugh. “Glad doesn’t quite describe it.”
Justie looked at him enquiringly. “What else . . . I mean you guys were out there in the middle of the night shovelling snow so her greenhouses wouldn’t cave in.”
“When she came outside I was slashing plastic. She thought I was some kind of psycho saboteur and she blew up at me.”
Justie almost laughed but thought better of it. From the expression on her brother’s face she could tell he wasn’t joking. “But once she figured out what was going on . . .”
“Once she figured out what was going on she grabbed a shovel and worked just as hard as the rest of us. But that doesn’t change the fact that she hates me.”
Justie sat down and stared at him. “I don’t understand.”
Darien pushed back his chair and began walking around the room. “It’s pretty simple. She can’t stand me. I’m rude, I’m arrogant, I’m conceited, I’m certifiable. . . why am I telling you all this? Forget it – it’s nothing - I need to get some sleep.” He walked through the doorway without a backward glance at Justie who watched him go, a bewildered expression on her face.
As he climbed the stairs to his room the words Elana had thrown at him revolved around in his head. Especially the ones he hadn’t mentioned to his sister. Romantically inept. Obviously she had been referring to that interlude in the woods. But she hadn’t put up any resistance at the time. Her lips had been soft, and warm and not completely unresponsive. Or so it had seemed to him. He had left her there in the moonlight with such a feeling of euphoria and contentment running through him. He would never feel that way again. Thinking about the kiss only made everything worse. He had to get her out of his mind if he hoped to ever dull the pain because, despite all her unkind words, her misconceptions and the unshakable fact that she hated him, he loved her and he knew that would not change.
When Elana awoke she wondered why she was sleeping in the living room in the armchair, wearing nothing but the blankets she was wrapped in, then the ordeal of the night before came back to her. She turned to the window and saw that wet flakes of snow were still falling. Holding the blankets tightly, she got up and trudged into the kitchen. Every part of her body was aching. Chandra was at the sink, washing dishes.
“I can’t tell yet. What time is it?”
“What? Is Cody up? What about school?”
“Relax – school’s cancelled today because of the snow. Cody’s outside playing in it. He’s pretty excited but I told him not to disturb you. Want some breakfast?”
Elana shook her head. “I think I’d better put some clothes on.”
Chandra looked out the window and giggled. “Better get cracking. Sam’s on his way – don’t want to embarrass the poor guy.”
Elana hurried to her bedroom. After a hot shower and with warm, dry clothes on she felt a bit better, but none of those things could rid her of the oppressive feelings that were weighting her down. She returned to the kitchen where Sam was sitting drinking tea and eating a piece of pie.
“I never thanked you,” she said as she sat down opposite him. “I feel so terrible. After everything you guys did to save my greenhouses I didn’t thank a single one of you.”
“Darien Stewart’s the one you really need to thank,” said Sam.
“I know – and I need to apologise to him. I sort of exploded – I didn’t know what was going on.”
“Yeah, well, I noticed you two were having a bit of an argument.”
“I don’t think I’ll be able to look him in the eye again,” said Elana with a long sigh. She felt tears welling up in her eyes and she did her best to hold them back. There was no way she was going to cry in front of Sam.
“He’s a reasonable man – I don’t think he’ll hold anything against you.”
“I guess I should have listened to you before when you told me he wasn’t as bad as I thought. Some of the things I said to him were justified, but I accused him of being insane and of destroying my greenhouses on purpose when he was only trying to help me. How did he know the greenhouses were in danger? I was sleeping and you were sleeping – I shudder to think what would have happened if he didn’t wake you up and call the other guys.”
Sam put his teacup down. “Green Valley Farms lost three houses, and Arboflora in Merville lost all eight of theirs. Even Village Gardens in town had one that half-way collapsed and they were out half the night like us, clearing the snow off.”
“Oh my God!” said Elana.
“I’ve been out checking your houses. There’s a few bent arches, but no real structural damage to any of them. If the plastic hadn’t been cut you would’ve lost a couple – there’s no way we could’ve shovelled all that snow off in time.”
Elana couldn’t speak. All she could do was think of all those terrible things she had said to Darien. Even if some of them were true, it was awful that she had thrown them at him while he was out in the freezing sleet saving her livelihood.
“Don’t look so shocked, Elana. Everything’s fine – there’s no point in worrying about what might have happened because it didn’t happen. Just thank your lucky stars.”
“I’m completely indebted to Darien Stewart,” said Elana in a shaky voice.
“Is that so very terrible?” Sam asked.
“And the rest of you guys too. You were all so wonderful coming out in the middle of the night like that and working so hard.”
“That’s what friends are for,” said Sam with a smile.
Elana heard an engine outside, and a rumbling, scraping noise. “What’s that?”
Sam cocked his head. “Must be Dennis on the snow plough. Darien asked him to do your driveway after he finished ploughing his.”
This latest act of kindness was more than her feelings could bear. She laid her upper body on the table, her head on her crossed arms, and cried.
Sam shuffled over to her and patted her on the shoulder. “I think you need to go back to bed and get some more sleep, Elana.” He helped her out of her chair and guided her to her room. “See you tomorrow,” he said as he hugged her shoulders and then pushed her gently through her doorway.
Cody wasn’t pleased about the snowploughing because it meant that he was able to get to school the next day. Elana drove him through the light drizzle and then went to her insurance office to see if she could make a claim for any damages. She could not. The broker told her that even if her greenhouses had collapsed there would have been no compensation unless they were under warranty. After that she priced the cost of replacing the plastic and returned home in a troubled state of mind. She needed to have money coming in before that amount of money could go out.
In the next few days she saw Carl, Colin, and Dennis and was able to thank them properly, but she still hadn’t got up the nerve to go to Stewart Stables and thank Darien. All she could remember was that look on his face when he had told her to forget that he had said he loved her. She was afraid to witness that pain again, and she was filled with shame about so much of what she had said to him. She contemplated writing him a note, but that was a coward’s way out.
By Friday the snow had been washed away and the ground was saturated with water. The soccer fields in town looked like a lake. Elana came back from a trip to Superstore to find a truck in her driveway and a team of workers stripping the shredded plastic from her greenhouses.
“What’s going on here?’ she asked. “I didn’t hire anyone.”
The foreman came over to speak to her. “Are you Elana Barnes?”
“Sorry to start the job without speaking to you. I did talk to Sam Jardin, though.”
“Did he call you?” asked Elana, surprised that Sam would do something like this without consulting her. He knew how tight the money was.
“No. We were hired by Darien Stewart, of Stewart Stables. He’s covering all the costs. Is there a problem?”
“No . . . I just wasn’t aware,” said Elana. “You go ahead and do the job – I’ll speak to Mr Stewart. I should be paying for it – not him.”
“Well, you settle that between you,” said the foreman jovially. “I’ll just do what I’m told.”
Elana contemplated charging through the bush and climbing the fence, but instead walked quickly down the length of her driveway and then up Darien’s even longer one. The first person she saw when she arrived at the stables was Lina, who was just about to get into her silver BMW.
“Do you know where Darien is?” Elana asked her breathlessly.
Lina studied the polish on her fingernails. “Yes,” was all she said.
After waiting a few moments Elana lost her patience. “I asked because I’m looking for him.”
“What do you want him for?”
“It’s really none of your business,” said Elana.
“The stable business is my business, so’s Darien.”
“It has nothing to do with the stables.”
“I don’t see what you could possibly have to discuss with him,” said Lina, “but he’s busy at this moment.” She got into her car and started the engine, and then she opened her window and stuck her head out. “I suggest you phone and leave a message on the answering machine. I’m sure that someone will get back to you when they find the time.”
As Lina drove away, Elana looked about. There were too many choices – the barns, the stables, the riding ring, the house. She had been hoping to find him outside somewhere; she didn’t want to go up to his house. She felt that there she would be on too uneven a footing. Sighing, she walked towards the closest building and looked inside. There were tractors and wagons and other farm implements but nobody was around. Next she went into the small stable off the paddock where Cody usually had his lesson. She was greeted by the snorts of one or two of the horses that had broken off munching their hay, but other than that the building was empty. She began walking to the larger stable that was further back in the property when she noticed a rider in a far field. There was no mistaking who it was. She walked up to the fence and stood there, hoping he would notice her and come in.
She was leaning up against the fence for about five minutes before the rider became aware of her presence. She saw the sudden balk as he stopped the horse mid stride, and then turned it in her direction. The closer he got the more apprehensive she became. He seemed at the same time to be coming towards her too quickly and too slowly. When he was close enough to see his face she looked at the horse instead. He brought the animal right up close to the fence before he dismounted. He looped the reins around the fence post a couple of times and then came over to stand across from her. Neither of them spoke at first. All Elana could do was concentrate on the rings on the bridle by the horse’s cheek.
Darien shifted his feet, put his hands in his pockets, took them out again. “I guess they’ve started, eh?”
Elana’s head shot up to look at him. His face was as blank and expressionless as his voice. She had been going to thank him first, and then apologise, and then tell him that she would pay for the plastic. Instead she blurted out, “Why did you do it? How do you know I already haven’t ordered new plastic?”
“You can cancel the order.”
“I didn’t order any yet . . . I can’t afford to.”
“So there’s no problem then.” Darien reached for the reins.
“Wait!” said Elana. “You can’t pay for replacing the plastic.”
“Why not? I’m the one who slashed it.”
“But . . . but the greenhouses would have collapsed if you hadn’t done it.” Elana was looking at the horse’s head again.
“Maybe, maybe not. I’m the one who took that risk without consulting you. It’s my responsibility.”
“Don’t be crazy!” cried Elana. And then she turned red when she realised what she had just said.
“I am perfectly sane.” Darien’s voice was colder than ever.
Elana looked back at him again. “I didn’t mean . . . that was a stupid thing to say . . . after what you did for me . . . I know . . . I know . . .”
Darien cut her off. “What I did is no big deal – anyone would have done the same.”
“You can’t pay for my plastic!”
“I already have,” said Darien, taking the reins from the post and mounting his horse, “so just accept it. Nothing you can say will change my mind.”
“But – but don’t ride away yet. I need to thank you for saving everything I’ve worked so hard for.”
“I didn’t do it for thanks,” he said as he turned the horse and walked it back up the field.
Elana kicked the fence. “Don’t go yet, I still have to apologise,” she said, but Darien was already too far away to hear her. She thought of yelling it after him, but she was close to tears and too angry to apologise. And now he expected her to let him pay for the plastic. She stared after him watching his back, erect as his body swayed gently with the horse’s natural rhythm. He didn’t turn around. She could add pride to his list of faults at the same time as she grudgingly added generosity to his list of virtues.
It had been one of the hardest things he’d ever done. He had known she would come. There was no way she would have let him pay for the plastic without a word. But he hadn’t been prepared for the way his heart lurched when he had seen her waiting for him beside the fence. He’d felt a sudden thrill as if she’d come because she wanted to see him. But he knew it was only about the plastic. When he got to the fence she’d done her best not to even look at him, and when she did, though he’d longed to see her eyes, he wished he hadn’t. There was no spark in their depths for him. Only anger. And it had caused him to fall back behind a defence of reserve, but rather than stop the pain it had only made him distant and cold.
He had meant it when he’d said that he hadn’t helped her for thanks. He’d helped her because he’d watched all the work and determination that had gone into restoring the greenhouses and planting all her cuttings and seedlings. He’d have done anything not to see her spirit shattered and destroyed. When he’d woken and seen the snow, the first thing he had thought of was her – and when he’d looked out his window and seen how deeply her greenhouses were covered he knew immediately what he had to do. He’d slashed that plastic with such frenzy not for praise or thanks but because he wanted to spare her any suffering. And he’d done it all with love. But he should have extended that love to allowing her to thank him.
As he walked the horse away from her he did not permit himself to turn his head. If he had done so he would have ridden back to her and given way to his barely suppressible urge to hold her and comfort her. But he knew that comfort from him wasn’t what she wanted. She’d accused him before of not giving any thought to her feelings. Considering her feelings was now foremost in his mind.
Elana was grateful that she had her work to lose herself in and escape the memory of that night, but in all her quiet moments she could think of nothing else. Sometimes it was just the image of Darien slashing at her greenhouses with such intensity that it was frightening even though she now understood and appreciated his actions. Sometimes it was their earlier meeting when he had kissed her. She found her thoughts on the kiss confusing, muddled with outrage and longing. But his insulting confession of how he had let his feelings for her overcome his reason – that still hurt and angered her as much as ever. At least she didn’t have to worry about his loving her any longer – no love could have withstood the blast she had given him.
February came to an end with a week of grey drizzle that made her wish for the freezing temperatures and blue skies of her old home but the weather changed in March to blustery days of sun and cloud that at times were almost as warm as summer. Elana was able to move her hardier seedlings out into the cold frames and begin planting up her hanging baskets. When not working she spent as much time as possible with Cody, taking him to all his practices and games. The season was winding down and they were in playoffs and on a very solid winning streak.
She had seen Darien across the field at a couple of the games but he hadn’t come over to her side. His presence affected her differently now than it had before. Now she appreciated that he was there to support Cody, and she was glad that the increased distance between herself and Darien hadn’t affected that friendship.
The morning before his semi-final Cody was checking his cleats in the kitchen, his excitement barely contained.
“We’re facing the first place team!” he said as he replaced a worn down cleat. “If we beat them we’re in the final.”
“Didn’t you tie them last time you played?”
“They’re the team we beat in the shoot out. I know we can beat them again!”
“I like your attitude buddy,” said Elana, hugging him. “Are you ready? It’s time to hit the road.”
As they were driving, Elana let Cody’s excited jabbering slide over her as her mind went back to that other game. Darien Stewart had been there – he’d bought her a hot chocolate, and now she realised he’d bought it for her because she was cold and hadn’t just given it to her absently because Justie wasn’t around. She always had looked for the worst interpretation to his actions just because he’d annoyed her the first day they’d seen each other. What had he said then that was so terrible, really? He hadn’t known who she was. He wasn’t even speaking to her. She could now understand how he must have felt to have such an unkempt property beside his own for so many years. Sam had told her stories about how it had been a hangout for punks and losers, and how the tenants had always trashed it. She knew what a pigsty it was when she had moved in. Had Darien said anything terrible about it since then? His anger about the fire had been justified – and she had reacted badly again. Since then he’d made no complaints at all – he’d been quiet and kept to himself. Until that cold, cold night when he’d said all those awful things to her after he had kissed her.
After he’d kissed her. She wondered what had brought that on. How had he supposedly fallen in love with her when they’d barely been in each other’s company? She recalled the game again, how he’d stayed by her side, how he’d grabbed her hand comfortingly before Cody had taken his shot. And then there was that dinner at The Old House before the play. He’d been looking at her across the table all through the meal even though he was with his girlfriend, and then they’d driven to the play alone together, although they hadn’t even spoken to each other. Maybe if she hadn’t been so caught up in her dislike of him she’d have noticed that those occasions had meant more to him than they had to her. But still, there was Lina. No matter how she looked at it, it didn’t add up.
When she drove into the parking lot Elana was still as confused as ever and she told herself off for being so preoccupied when she should have been paying more attention to Cody. He didn’t seem to be affected in the least, though. He gave her a hug and then ran out onto the playing field to join his teammates for the warm-up. Elana walked slowly out to the sidelines. She pulled her sweater tightly around herself. In the open the breeze was brisker than it had been at her house. She decided to keep moving and walked over to the river to kill time before the game started. As she looked down from the bridge at the dark eddying water, she watched her reflection form and break, form and break. ‘Nothing is permanent,’ she thought. ‘What I’m going through right now will pass – it’s best not to dwell on it too much.’ She turned around and walked back to the soccer field, the wind blowing strongly through her hair.
Cody had a large fan base on the sidelines by game time. Joy and Carl, Sam, and Chandra were all high fiving him as the team ran onto the field. He looked off in the distance and waved as he took his spot in left mid. Elana turned to see whom he was waving at. Justie and Darien were walking up from the parking lot.
“You guys almost missed the starting whistle,” called Carl.
“It’s Darien’s fault,” said Justie.
“Yeah,” Darien said. “I insisted on going back to get Justie a warmer jacket. And don’t say you’re not glad I did, Justie.”
“I’m all cosy and warm,” she said, snuggling her furry collar around her neck.
Justie gave Elana a warm greeting and settled in beside her and began chatting. Darien nodded in her direction, his smile barely perceptible, and stood beside Carl. Elana smiled tentatively at him and then gave her attention to Justie.
“I’m glad I could finally make another game,” said Justie. “I usually give a private lesson on Saturday mornings but it was cancelled. Cody was really eager for us to come.”
“He loves it when his friends are here.”
“And his games are so much fun!” Justie said. “I remember the last one I went to – he scored the winning goal in a shoot out.”
The play started and all the conversation reverted to the action at hand. The teams were well matched and the competition fierce. And though Elana was fully intent on the game, in the back of her mind she was always aware of where Darien was standing. His voice stood out amid all the other cheering. During the game he gravitated closer to her until only Justie was between them. She told herself that it was because of his sister and nothing to do with her but once or twice she had caught him looking at her.
At half time Cody came running off the field and was surrounded by everyone as they patted his back and congratulated him on his solid performance. Elana stood back and watched in pleasure after giving the first hug. The wind tossed her hair in and out of her eyes and she wished she’d brought an elastic. She held her hair back with one hand and blew on the other to try to warm it, regretting the fact that her sweater had no pockets. She saw Darien say something in Justie’s ear and then he walked away towards the concession stand. Justie then left the group and came up by Elana’s side. She dug about in her jacket pocket and pulled out a scrunchie.
“Here, will this help?” she asked.
“Thanks,” said Elana, taking it and tying her hair back. “My hands are freezing from holding it out of my eyes.” She stuffed her hands under her arms. “That’s better.”
“Are you warm enough?”
“I’ll be just fine. It’s my own silly fault for not wearing a jacket.”
“I’m so glad Darien went back for mine,” confided Justie. “I didn’t think it’d be this cold either – the weather’s been so nice lately.”
“I know, sometimes it’s hard to remember it’s only March.”
“But it’s not letting us forget today!”
The whistle blew again and the kids ran onto the pitch for the second half. Elana turned towards the field and just about bumped into an arm holding a hot chocolate out towards her.
“This should warm up your hands,” Darien said, and then he handed a cup to his sister as well.
“Th – thanks,” said Elana, circling her fingers around the hot cup.
“Good game,” he said. “They’ll score soon – it’s only a matter of time.” And then he wandered away to where Carl and Joy were standing.
“Ooh! Sir Galahad to the rescue,” said Chandra as she joined Elana and Justie.
“What’re you talking about?” asked Elana.
“I should have stood around shivering and maybe someone would have brought me a hot chocolate.”
“My brother is the sweetest guy,” said Justie, “anyway, you were snuggling up so close to Colin you didn’t have a chance to be cold.”
“But now he’s running up and down the sidelines and I’m freezing my butt off.”
“Concession stand is right over there.” Justie motioned behind them and laughed.
“You think I’d dare miss any of the game to get a drink now? Cody would have my hide. The kid’s got eyes on the back of his head. He’s watching all of us.”
“Would you like a sip of mine?” asked Elana, holding out her cup.
“Forget about it. That’s from your knight in shining armour. I’ll get mine to warm me up again after the game.”
“I don’t have a . . . he’s not . . .”
“Sure could’ve fooled me, sugar,” said Chandra as she sauntered off to join Sam.
Elana focused back on the game, hoping that her cheeks weren’t as flushed as they felt.
Darien had been right in his prediction. Cody’s team finally broke down the other’s defences fifteen minutes into the half and scored. In the dying seconds Cody added a second goal that was icing on the cake. When the final whistle blew and the two teams had shaken hands the boys ran a victory lap and then Cody did cartwheels all the way off the field.
“We’re going to the finals,” he cried with joy as he ran into Elana’s arms.
“I know honey! And you were awesome. That was an amazing goal.”
“The goalie had given up by that time,” said Cody.
“Not true. Your shot was too strong for him to handle.”
“Pizza!” yelled Colin. “Coach Jerry’s treat!” Chandra gave him a push and he grabbed her in a hug, but she started tickling him. “Okay, I relent. My treat, everybody.”
“That’s better,” said Chandra. She turned to the others, “You guys all coming?”
“If Colin’s paying, we’re coming,” said Carl, his arm around Joy’s waist. “I’m not missing out on a chance like this. He usually sticks me with the bill.”
Chandra looked over at the rest of them. Elana and Sam both nodded and Cody jumped up and down with glee. Darien looked hesitant but Justie spoke up.
“I’m with Carl,” she said. “I’m not missing this for the world.”
Justie looked over at Darien as he drove out of the lot at the pizza place. “When are you going to let it go?”
“Let what go?”
“When are you going to stop being mad at Elana?”
“I’m not mad at her. I couldn’t possibly be mad at her.”
“Well that’s how it appears, buster. You sat about as far away from her as possible.”
“We’re a big group – we couldn‘t all sit beside each other.”
“I was saving a place for you and you know it.”
“I know Justie, but . . . you don’t understand.”
“Of course I don’t,” she said in exasperation. “You never tell me anything.”
Darien drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. “Just leave it . . . please?”
“I hate seeing you like this. I mean, I know you like her – don’t even try to tell me different. You’re the one who asked if I had a hair elastic for her. You’re the one who bought her a hot chocolate because you noticed she was cold. But you barely said two words to her. You’re so . . . aloof.”
“You remember what I told you that morning. She doesn’t like me. The last thing I’m going to do is force myself on her. I know how it feels to have someone hanging all over me who I’ve got no interest in. I’m not going to do that to her.” He flicked his turn signal on a little too aggressively, did a quick check in his mirror, and changed lanes.
Justie grabbed hold of her door handle as the car jerked over. “This isn’t the same as you and Lina. Just show Elana how nice you are – she can’t help but like you.”
“Thanks for the commendation, Justie, but I know what she thinks of me. I’m conceited, rude . . .”
“I’ve heard the list before, but I don’t understand why she’d ever think that about you.”
“She thinks that way about me because of things I’ve said and the way I’ve acted. And she’s right,” he said with resignation.
“What are you talking about?”
“Where she’s concerned I’ve been nothing but a jerk.”
“And saving her greenhouses and replacing the plastic were jerky things to do?”
“The way I went about them, yes.”
“Well if you ask me, you’re still acting like a jerk then.”
“Justie – I’m not going to make a fool of myself going after someone who doesn’t like me. I’m sure we’ll be able to become good neighbours and treat each other pleasantly, but she’s never going to feel the same way about me as I do about her. You can’t make someone like you, either it’s there or it’s not. In this case it’s not.” He looked away from the road and stared directly at her for a moment. His face was pale and drawn, his eyes strained.
Justie reached out and stroked his arm. “I’m sorry, Darien. Love’s a b*tch, eh?”
He smiled ruefully and reached for the knob of the car stereo. “We need some music.”
That night as she lay in her bed, it didn’t matter how cosily Elana snuggled under her blankets she couldn’t get to sleep. She didn’t understand Darien at all. He’d bought her that hot chocolate and she was almost certain that he’d asked Justie to give her the scrunchie for her hair, but aside from those kind gestures he had completely ignored her. And she wondered why that bothered her so much. Why looking at his harsh expression should make her feel bad because she had put it there. Why she wanted to see him smile, his eyes all lit up, when he looked at her, just like when he was talking to Cody. She tried to combat those feelings by remembering the words he’d said after he’d kissed her. But she kept remembering the kiss, before she could get to the words.
She cleared her mind and tried again . . . I’ve struggled against my feelings for a long time now . . . I thought I could control them. Why – why did he need to control them? What was wrong with having feelings for her? I couldn’t admit that I had fallen for someone like you. What was wrong with who she was? Sure, she wasn’t rich, but she was intelligent and hard working, and a good mother, and not completely unattractive. With your background. He knew absolutely nothing about her background – she was sure of it . . . unless he’d hired private investigators, or something. Divorced. Not such a great stigma, these days. With a child. She couldn’t understand this one at all. She knew he liked Cody – so why would it bother him that she had a child? In that broken down house next door that I wanted gone. This one made the most sense of the lot – he was too proud to want a relationship with someone who lived on a scale so much lower than his. But I have. I can’t do anything about it . . . I love you. And unreasonably, she remembered the almost bemused expression on his face and softness of his voice when he had said all those words, and then the later conviction when he repeated, I love you. The dislike and anger she had been building up dissipated. Why did that phrase touch her so deeply, especially now when it no longer meant anything? Why was she left with the feeling that she might have lost something of value?
She sat up, completely frustrated with the way her brain was behaving so treacherously, and turned on the light. She might as well accept that she was not going to fall asleep, and she desperately needed to change the tangent that her mind was on. She tiptoed to the living room, and in the light cast from her open door, searched the bookshelf for something to read. It was lying where she had placed it almost two months before. She’d forgotten all about it, but now it was the only thing she was aware of Greenday Shadows. The dark green font burned into her eyes. She knew that if she closed them she would still see the words emblazoned on the insides of her lids. She picked up the book and carried it back to bed with her. At worst she would discover that she liked it – at best it would put her to sleep.
Elana reached out to turn her alarm clock off, wondering why her bedroom light was on and what was poking into her cheek so uncomfortably. It was an open book, upside down on her pillow. She remembered reading for most of the night – she had no recollection of falling asleep; the transition from story to dreams had been seamless. She was still having trouble shaking those dreams – images of filtered light, spangled leaves, and tapestry clothing filled her head. She almost thought she should understand the birds singing outside her window until she realised that it was only in her dreams that she spoke their language.
She picked up the book and straightened the creased pages while she looked around for something to use as a bookmark. She read a bit to see if she could find the spot where she had dropped off to sleep and was surprised when Cody came into the room, rubbing his eyes.
“You forgot to wake me up.”
“No, I just woke up myself,” said Elana, and then she looked at her clock. It was an hour since the alarm had gone off. “Oops! I guess I got caught up in this book.”
She put the book aside and they made breakfast together. All during the day Elana felt the restless pull of the book. After supper she could no longer resist the urge; she picked up <I>Greenday Shadows</I>, cuddled amongst a pile of pillows, and lost herself once again.
The book was amazing. At first she kept pausing, having trouble processing the fact that it was a creation of Darien Stewart’s mind; and then she became so involved in the story nothing else mattered. She had stopped reading to give Cody a kiss and a cuddle when he was on his way to bed and though she knew she ought to wash up and clean her teeth as well, she kept reading until all the disparate strands of magic wove themselves together in an ending that left her filled with strange wonder.
She was consumed with a need to read more of his books. The next day she searched in the library, found one on the shelves, and requested an additional two, and she began a journey of discovery. More than being wrapped up in story, evocative phrasing, and creative imagery, she was working her way through the maze of conflicting impressions that she had of Darien.
When she saw him the next weekend at the playing field it was as if all the layers of his writing were screening out her preconceived ideas of him. He stood there, outwardly tall, attractive and confident, but at the same time she was aware of his inner complexity, sensitivity, and the elusive fragility that he kept so well hidden. She longed to touch his hand, look up into his face and say she was sorry. But she was held back by the aura of remoteness he was wrapped in, like a protective ward. When someone said something that made him smile, she wished she had been the one to cause it - that he was smiling for her. And she deeply felt the irony that now, after she had made her dislike of him all too clear, her feelings had done a complete one-eighty; after she had given him cause to hate her, she now <I>wanted</I> him to care. Elana pulled her jacket tightly around herself, trying her best to put Darien out of her mind and concentrate on Cody’s game.
Cody’s team played valiantly in the final match, but the odds were against them. They normally played nine a side, but three of their players were sick with the flu and another had sprained his ankle during the week skateboarding. They had to play the game one man short with no subs. At the end their team was flagging and the opposition managed to breach their defences and put in an easy goal to win the game two to one. They left the field dejected but knowing they had done their best. They were cheered so much by their fans and commended so highly by their coaches that when the time came to be presented with their silver medals they were all grinning proudly and talking about how they would win the gold next year.
They all went to Coach Jerry’s house after the game for a season-ending party and barbeque. While the kids played ping pong and bounced on the trampoline, the parents all chatted together and set out the food. Elana put her potato salad on a table and then wandered about the garden and watched the kids running around, amazed at their irrepressible energy. She felt drained, but knew it was because she had stayed up late reading every night that week, and then worked just as hard as ever each day. Jerry’s wife came over to tell her the food was ready and brought her back to join in on conversations with the other parents. At first she had been hesitant to do so, but it was just what she needed to shift focus. She ended up having a much better time than she had ever expected, especially when, just before the party broke up, the coaches presented Cody with a rookie of the year award.
“I’m so proud of you, hon,” she said as he held it up over his head, beaming. Then she gave him a huge hug. That night he slept with it clutched tightly against his chest.
“I don’t care what you say or how you feel about it, Darien,” said Justie, “but I’m inviting Elana and Cody for Easter dinner.”
Darien looked up at her from his breakfast plate. Since Cody’s last soccer game he’d only seen Elana from a distance, and the desire to be close enough to see her face, hear her voice, and smell the faint fragrance of bergamot that lingered about her was strong within him. “Don’t,” he said softly, beseeching.
“I like her too, you know, and I want to get to know her better. Anyway, Carl is bringing Joy and Colin’s bringing Chandra, and Cody’s coming to the student Easter egg hunt in the afternoon, so it would be impolite not to invite them for dinner.”
“You’re right.” His heart began to pound at the idea of Elana being there, in his house, at his dinner table, her eyes shining in the candlelight, in a little less than a week’s time.
“Admit that you want her to come,” Justie said as she sat down beside him.
“What I want doesn’t even come into it,” he said as he pushed his plate away.
“Hurry up mom, or all the other kids will get the eggs,” said Cody as they walked up the driveway past the stables.
“They wouldn’t start without you,” said Elana, laughing at his impatience, “but maybe they should. You’ve had more than enough chocolate today already.”
When they arrived at the front steps there were signs with arrows directing them around to the back yard. It was the first time Elana had seen the house without a screening of trees blocking most of it from her view. It was large but in no way imposing. Most of the size was due to the wide porch that wrapped around it. She could see wicker furniture and a cedar porch swing. The upper story had a gabled roof and dormer windows. The creamy white walls and rich green trim blended well with the backdrop of hemlock, cedar, and pine, and the sloping garden was a rich collection of ornamental shrubs and spring flowers.
The first person Elana saw as they rounded the far corner of the house was Darien, standing a little away from the children and other adults who were thronging around Justie. He was wearing a loose white shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and crisp, dark jeans. He was looking cool and relaxed and completely at ease, until he turned and saw her. The smile on his face stiffened and his eyes took on that strained look she was becoming accustomed to seeing.
Elana’s courage almost failed her but she walked up to him and said, “Thanks for inviting us.”
“I’m glad you could come,” he said, but Elana was left with the feeling it was an obligatory response and there was no real pleasure in having her there.
After saying hi to Darien, Cody ran off to join the other children. Darien looked to a point somewhere beyond Elana’s head and said, “I should go and get things started.”
“Can I just have a minute, first?” she asked, afraid that she’d not get another opportunity to be alone with him.
His expression turned wary. “Certainly.” He stood, waiting, looking about as approachable as the sheer face of a cliff.
“I’ve been wanting to apologise ever since I realised what you were doing that night. I’m . . . I’m sorry for all those things I said to you . . . I – I wasn’t thinking straight.”
“I wasn’t either . . . I said things that I’m sorry for too.”
Elana stared up into his grey eyes.
“It all came out wrong,” he whispered.
She was back in the moonlit woods hearing those stumbling words again. The confusion and awe in his voice were evident. They were disconnected thoughts, half formed, and open to interpretation. She had chosen to interpret them in the worst way possible. Elana felt her own thoughts slipping and realised she was losing track of her intended purpose. She was the one who was supposed to be apologizing.
“It made me so angry,” she said slowly, “and then when I saw all the lights, and saw you with that knife raised and your long shadow, like some horror movie, I just exploded. And later I jumped on your back and began hitting you, and you must have thought I was as crazy as I thought you were. I know you’re not crazy . . . and I’m completely indebted to you for what you did.”
“Don’t . . . it’s fine . . . I understand . . .”
“Darien! What are you doing ignoring all your guests? I’ve been looking for you everywhere.” Lina sauntered up and grabbed his arm, then she looked over to Elana and smiled at her with artificial sweetness. “Elaine, Justie wants you.”
“I’d better go,” said Elana, unable to meet Darien’s eyes anymore. “I shouldn’t have kept you from your guests.”
She walked away quickly before he could see that she had started shaking. The last few weeks she had been filling her head with him, reading and rereading his books. She’d even ordered his latest one from the bookstore because it wasn’t available at the library. But she’d forgotten all about Lina. She knew she’d hoped more would come from the apology than simply arriving at a truce. Just standing next to him had affected her so deeply that trying to make an effective apology had been extremely difficult. And now here she was, half way in love with someone who wasn’t even available, even if he could forgive her. What he saw in Lina, Elana had no idea, but the fact remained that she was his girlfriend. And there was no way that Elana was about to attempt to develop a relationship with a man who was going out with someone else.
Darien shook his arm loose. “You just don’t quit do you?”
“What?” asked Lina, grabbing his hand and playing with his fingers.
“You know her name’s not Elaine.”
“Whatever. I don’t really care about her, pretentious upstart. Why did Justie invite her to dinner anyway? And get that dress she’s wearing – it’s got to be at least five years old. She looks so worn out in it.”
“I see nothing wrong with the way she’s dressed.”
“Well, it’s better than her usual jeans and t-shirt, I guess, but that’s not saying much. The thing I can’t understand is why everyone thinks she’s pretty – you don’t think she’s pretty, do you?”
“There was a time I did,” he said, and Lina smirked. “But for quite a while I’ve thought her the most amazingly attractive woman I’ve ever met. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got an Easter egg hunt to start.”
All through dinner, Darien found it increasingly difficult to stop himself from looking at Elana. She was sitting on the far side of the table, exactly where he had told his sister to place her, but he wished she were beside him instead of Lina. The candlelight lit up her face just as he’d anticipated. She was a little subdued, and he wondered if his apology had disturbed her. It had been obvious that her own apology had been difficult for her to make. Was that because of her dislike of him, or some other factor? It had been almost as if they had made a connection and he wondered what would have happened if Lina hadn’t interrupted them.
He didn’t get a chance to speak to Elana privately during the rest of the evening, and if he had he knew he wouldn’t have been able to broach the subject again. They did take part in the same conversations, though, and he could see that she was now treating him with cool politeness – not unfriendly but certainly not welcoming either. Whatever closeness had almost started between them before Lina had come along was no longer in evidence. Maybe it had only been a manifestation of his wishful thinking, after all.
When everyone had left, he and Justie puttered around the kitchen, filling the dishwasher and putting the pots to soak.
“That went pretty well, don’t you think?” asked Justie.
“Yes,” Darien replied, noncommittally.
“I saw you and Elana talking when she arrived – it looked pretty intense.”
“We apologised to each other.”
“Good – now maybe the two of you can get on with it,” Justie responded with a grin. “Too bad you insisted on her sitting so far from you at dinner.”
“We’re not going to be getting on with anything,” said Darien, giving his sister a whack with his dishcloth, “but at least we have cleared the air and can meet and talk politely like two disinterested neighbours.”
“Disinterested! That’s a good one,” said Justie, giggling at him. “Both of you kept sneaking peeks at the other all night.”
“You’re imagining things,” Darien said as he surveyed the kitchen. “I think we can leave the rest of this till morning. Let’s get to bed – I don’t know about you, but I’m beat.”
In April Elana could see daily differences in growth in her greenhouses. By the middle of the month she was able to start selling her first crop of bedding plants and the majority of her hanging baskets were on target to be ready for Mothers’ day. Half of them were already pre-ordered. She enjoyed her work more than ever. The greenhouses were warm and welcoming and the happy little faces of the pansies that were opening everywhere took her mind away from its preoccupation with Darien Stewart.
She hadn’t been able to stop reading his books, or stop thinking of him with increased intensity. Now that soccer season was over Cody was having riding lessons three times a week and Elana looked forward to picking him up just for the chance of seeing Darien, despite the fact that she knew it was foolish to think of him. She couldn’t help herself. He fascinated her. When they did see each other they would smile and say hi in a neighbourly way and she would comment on the weather while Darien asked her how her flowers were growing. It was silly that she looked forward to such commonplace exchanges, but it was all she could allow herself and all she could really expect.
She had longer conversations with Justie who had a new boyfriend and was bursting with happiness.
“I can’t wait for you to meet him, Elana. I know you’ll like him.”
Cody had met him when he’d dropped by during lessons once or twice and confirmed that he was a fun guy. “But I like Colin and Carl and Darien better,” he confided when he was alone with his mom.
The next time Elana went to pick up Cody, there was a flashy yellow Mustang parked outside the stables. ‘So I finally get to meet the boyfriend,’ Elana thought as she walked into the tack room.
Colin was putting the currycombs away and Justie was handing harnesses to someone who was half in a closet. The door closed and the man turned to face her just as Justie grinned and said, “Elana, meet Greg.”
He came forward with his hand stretched out, a phoney smile plastered on his face. “Hi there. Elana, is it? Nice to meet you.”
Elana could barely raise her arm. She pulled her hand out of his warm grasp as soon as possible. Words were impossible. She was glad that she was standing half in shadow, hoping that it hid the look of shock on her face from Justie. She hadn’t seen him in almost eight years. He’d hardly changed at all – still as heart-stoppingly gorgeous as he had been only now Elana knew the man who hid so well behind those abundant charms. She looked from Greg to Cody and back again and wondered how she was going to escape from that little room with her son without giving everything away. But she knew it was going to be impossible to keep the truth from either of them.
“So,” said Greg, as he watched Elana’s frightened eyes dart back and forth between himself and Cody, “is this your little boy? He’s a great kid. Great kid.” And he stood there, seemingly relaxed and casual, but his smile was cocksure and challenging. There was no doubt he was enjoying the adrenaline rush every gambler must feel when he rides the fine line between walking off with all the spoils and having his bluff called.
Walking home from Stewart Stables without telling Cody the real identity of Justie’s new boyfriend was one of the most difficult things Elana had ever done. She knew that no matter how much she didn’t want Cody to know, and no matter how much Greg didn’t want her to tell him, he had to be told. Only not yet. She needed time. Time to get the words right. Time to know how to do it without totally screwing the thing up. So they walked home in silence and for some reason Cody didn’t question her about her impressions of Justie’s boyfriend. There was something on Cody’s mind too, and it had nothing to do with Greg and everything to do with a yearling he had taken a fancy to.
That evening she longed to talk to someone, but Joy was working the late shift at Superstore and Chandra was out with Colin. Instead Elana lay in bed as conflicting memories ran through her mind. Things she had not thought about in years came to her clearly and vividly. Greg as she had first met him. Charming. Considerate. Carefree. Even now, with all she knew of him, he could almost work his deceptions. But she had other memories that wiped those out. She could rationalise him leaving her, no matter how callous his action, but how did a father leave his son without a word or a backward look? And how would Greg act towards him now that they were thrown face to face again? It appeared that he wanted to hide the relationship from everybody, and as much as Elana knew she would prefer Cody never knowing Greg was his father, she was appalled at Greg for his heartlessness.
And that was not the only issue. Somehow, along with telling Cody who Greg was, she was going to have to talk to Justie and warn her about Greg. It was impossible to believe that he could have changed; besides, even if he truly cared for Justie and was not only out to use her, she deserved to know about his past and what depth of deceit he was actually capable of. There was no way he would tell her a remotely true story.
With so much to dwell upon Elana did not sleep well. She woke up throughout the night, the discordance and apprehension of her dreams staying with her even as the scenarios remained elusive. In the morning she let the water run cold and icy as she washed her face repeatedly, but it did little to dispel the dissonance inside her head. When Cody was ready to rush out the door to his bus she surprised him with the strength of her hug.
“Mom, what’s up?”
“I’ll talk to you when you get home,” she whispered, her smile fragile. “I love you so much.”
Cody gave her confused a look. “I love you too mom, but I gotta run. If I miss my bus you’ll have to drive me.”
“Don’t mind me –you scoot on outta here,” she said and gave him a swat on the butt as she sent him down the stairs.
There was no time for Elana to do much thinking as she worked. Her mobile was ringing constantly with orders, customers were dropping in to buy flats of assorted bedding plants, and she barely had time to do the watering and transplanting that needed to get done. At two-thirty it had slowed down a bit and she looked over to Sam who was loading flats on a cart.
“Can you take care of things for the rest of the afternoon? I’ve got something important I have to do with Cody when he gets home from school.”
“No problem,” said Sam with a grin. “Get out of here – you haven’t even taken your lunch break yet.”
Elana thanked him and ran up to the house, kicking her boots off quickly as she scrubbed her hands in the laundry sink. She was just drying them when she felt a shadow cross the open door. She looked up to see Greg standing in the doorway, a confident grin on his face, and she knew that this was the moment she had been anticipating with misgiving all day.
“Aren’t you going to invite me in?” He walked towards her, his arms outstretched.
She slipped out of his embrace and through the kitchen door. “Keep your distance.”
“Is that any way to greet your long lost husband?” he asked, following her in and sitting at the table as if it was something he did every single day.
“You’re not my husband anymore.”
“It wasn’t my idea to get a divorce,” he said.
Elana looked at him in amazement. “You deserted me!”
Greg’s face changed. He looked contrite and hurt and vulnerable. “I couldn’t face you after I’d lost everything. I felt that I’d let you down and I swore that I’d get all the money back for us, for the three of us. That’s what I was doing. That’s why I left. But you lost your faith in me, and I don’t blame you – really I don’t. I know it looked bad – like I’d betrayed you. But that’s not the way it was. All I cared about was trying to make everything right again.”
“You do that so well,” said Elana. “Do you practice in front of a mirror, or does it just come naturally to you?”
“I never stopped loving you, Elana.”
“That’s why you never called, never wrote, and didn’t contest the divorce?”
“I was a total mess. I was depressed. I didn’t think I deserved you. I couldn’t come back before I’d regained what I’d lost. I was waiting for my new investments to come through.”
“If that were really the case – if you’d really lost all the money - you know I wouldn’t have cared a bit. You know I would have stood by you. But I know the truth. You used me. You cheated me out of everything I ever had, you left me with nothing, and what is the worst thing of all, you turned your back on Cody. You couldn’t even be bothered to try to be a father to him.”
“It worked out for the best, didn’t it? He looks like a pretty together kid – I’d say you did a great job without me. I got the feeling you didn’t want me in his life. You guys disappeared - it was damned hard to find you.”
Elana laughed. “So now you’re going to pretend you were looking for us all those years? That’s rich! You were just as surprised as I was when we met yesterday.”
Greg shrugged, and with the shrug he seemed to throw off all dissimulation. “He looks so much like you – I don’t know why I didn’t recognise him at once.”
“Because meeting your son at your new victim’s house was the last thing you expected.”
“You’ve turned into quite a little wildcat in the last few years,” said Greg, not bothering with the charm anymore. “Justie’s my girlfriend – you’d do well to remember that.”
“I remember too much to change my opinion.”
“So . . . what’re you planning to do about it?”
“What do you think I’m planning to do about it?” asked Elana bitterly. “As soon as Cody gets home from school I’m telling him who you are, then I’m going over to see Justie and I’m going to tell her all about you and our wonderful marriage
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” said Greg. He got up and walked over to Elana, backing her into a corner against the kitchen counter. “I’ll strike a deal with you. You don’t tell Justie about me and Cody never needs to know who I am.”
“He’s your son!”
“And he’s better off without me in his life. We both know that’s true.”
“And I’m supposed to just turn a blind eye while you do the same thing to Justie that you did to me?”
“Honey, I’ve changed. Justie’s a sweet kid – I like her for herself; the money’s just a bonus.”
“Yeah, right you’ve changed. That’s why you came over here to try and con me. If you’d really changed you’d be all too happy to have everything out in the open.”
“I don’t know if Justie’s ready for that yet – the truth still might be a little much for her.”
“And Darien would eat you alive.”
“Darien, yeah. She’s a little too attached to that brother of hers. Give me time, though, give me time.”
“I’m not giving you anything,” said Elana, pushing him away and going over to the table. “I’m going through with telling them and there’s nothing you can say or do to stop me.”
“I was afraid you were going to be difficult,” said Greg. He leaned against the counter and gave her a smug look. “I guess I have to go with plan B. It’s a bigger gamble, but you know me – I’m a gambling kinda guy.”
Elana looked over at the clock nervously. It was a little after three. Cody would be home at any minute. “Just get out of here.”
Greg looked up at the clock too and then sat down at the table again. “Not a chance. How about some tea?” He smiled sweetly. “Just to let you know, I prepared for this outcome while you were busy in your greenhouses. I’ve got an ace up my sleeve.”
“I guess I’ll just have to make the tea myself,” he said as he got up and sauntered over to the stove. “I filled the kettle earlier. I love the way no one locks their doors in the country.”
“Creep? Elana, surely you can do better than that, after all I’ve meant to you.”
“I haven’t wasted my time even thinking of you for years.”
Greg just laughed and busied himself with getting cups out of the cupboard. “You having some too, honey? I think sitting and drinking tea together adds such a homey touch.”
Elana barely resisted the urge to spit at him. Instead she sat stonily and refused to speak.
“I’ll just take that as a yes,” he said, setting a cup down in front of her. “I’m making camomile. I find it so soothing, don’t you?”
They sat in silence as the kettle boiled. Greg poured the water into the teapot and then set it down between them, flashing her a smile brimming with confidence. “Just like old times,” he smirked and then he filled their cups and lifted his to her in a toast.
Running feet were heard clattering up the front steps and then the door burst open.
“Hey mom! Are you home?” Cody yelled.
“We’re in here,” called Greg before Elana could say anything.
Cody came into the kitchen. “Hi there,” he said as he looked at his mom questioningly.
Suddenly Greg was holding Cody in his arms, tears streaming down his face, “Son!” he cried, as he stroked Cody’s hair back from his forehead and looked into his eyes. “I don’t believe it! I thought I’d never see this day. I’m your father, Cody. Your father!”
Elana sat in horrified shock. All her plans of how she would break it gently to Cody had been sabotaged in one quick motion.
“Is it true, mom?” asked Cody, as soon as he could speak.
“Yes,” she sighed. “Greg is your father. Remember how I told you this morning that we’d talk when you got home?”
Greg got back into action again. He released Cody from his hug and stood back to look at him, wiping the tears from his cheeks with the back of his hand as he did so. “I’ve been searching for so long,” he whispered. “I’d almost given up. When I first met you, I thought there was something familiar about you, but I couldn’t quite place it, and then yesterday, when I saw your mom at the stables, I went into shock. I’m sorry I didn’t say anything then, but discovering you were you was just so totally unexpected.”
“You didn’t say anything either, mom.”
“I know honey, but I was surprised too, and then I didn’t know how to tell you. I wanted to do it right.” She couldn’t help but glare accusingly at Greg.
“I did too,” said Greg, “so I came over today and your mom and I talked it out. We decided it would be nice like this, over tea, more like a family.”
Cody looked from one to the other. “Are you going to . . . get married again?”
“No Cody,” said Elana quickly.
“Your mom doesn’t want me back,” said Greg with a bit of a mournful look. “Anyway, I’m dating Justie now. But I want to be part of your life and make up for all those years I wasn’t there. All those birthdays I missed. Those soccer games I didn’t see. I’ll teach you to play baseball, I’ll . . . I’ll just be the best darned father you could ever want and hope that you will grow to love me almost as much as you love your mom.”
“I . . . I’d like to play baseball,” said Cody, not really sure how to react to all that Greg was saying.
“I know this is pretty overwhelming,” said Greg understandingly. “I won’t stay much longer today, but we’ll do something together tomorrow after school, okay?”
“I have riding lessons tomorrow,” said Cody.
“Perfect,” said Greg. “I’ll come and watch and then maybe take you out to McDonald's or something.”
Cody looked at Elana. “Is that okay, mom?”
“If it’s what you want, hon,” she said, blinking back the welling tears.
Greg squatted down beside Cody and pulled his wallet out of his back pocket. “I’ve got something in here I want to show you, son.” He rifled about until he pulled out a dog-eared picture. “This is all I had of you for all that time,” he said, and he held it out to him.
Cody took it and stared. “We have this same picture in our album,” he said. He looked over at Greg. “You look different now.”
“Time does that to people,” said Greg, shaking his head. “Show it to your mom.”
Elana took the picture from Cody’s outstretched hand. It was a picture of Greg holding Cody on his first birthday, showing him how to blow out the candles. She stared at Greg. Where had he got it? She hadn’t developed the film until a week after he had left, and she’d never communicated with him since.
Greg just smiled at her blandly, and then held his hand out for it. “If it wasn’t for this picture I think I would have gone out of my mind,” he said softly. “Look how creased it is – I used to sleep with it under my pillow.” Then he reached out and rumpled Cody’s hair. “Sorry for being so sentimental, Codester.” He tucked the photo back into his wallet and returned it to his pocket. “I think I’d better be going and give you and your mom a chance to talk. See you tomorrow.” He raised his head up and caught Elana’s eyes. “Walk me to the door?”
She only nodded to him. “I’ll be back in a moment,” she said to Cody.
“That was so unfair,” she said as soon as they were out of earshot. “You can’t play with a child’s emotions like that.”
“All’s fair in this game,” Greg answered back. “Anyway I think I’ll like being a dad.”
“It’s not a game.”
“Relax, honey, everything’s cool,” he said as he stopped in the doorway. “You’re so worried about his emotional state that you won’t bad-mouth me to him, will you?” He laughed at her expression. “I knew I’d be safe. And just be warned - the story I tell Justie is going to be very different from the one you plan on telling – I doubt once I’m through with her she’ll believe a word you say. I can be very persuasive, or have you forgotten?”
Before she could stop him he leaned over and kissed her lips, and then grinned his devastating grin at her as he waved goodbye, taking the steps two at a time and jogging leisurely up the driveway. Elana wiped her mouth and stared after him. He’d really enjoyed himself and she was sure he was going to enjoy spinning his lies and crying his crocodile tears for Justie just as much, if not more. She walked slowly back to the kitchen, trying to figure out the best way to talk it over with Cody. When she got there she held her arms out to Cody and he snuggled in for the hug.
“Sorry, hon. That’s not how I wanted to tell you.”
“It’s okay, mom. I don’t mind. It’s weird finally meeting my dad, but kinda cool too. I mean, I never really thought about him much, but now he’s here, maybe it’ll be like doing things with Colin Fox or Darien Stewart, you know?”
Elana made a snack and they talked a little more, and then Cody broke down and told her what was really on his mind. He wanted a horse, and not just any horse, a young horse from Stewart Stables that Darien had let him help groom during its training. He talked of nothing else until supper and Elana decided that maybe everything would be all right after all. Kids were so resilient. Though she did wonder where she could possibly get the thousands of dollars that a yearling from Stewart Stables would cost.
That night after Cody went to bed, Elana took out the photo album from the bottom shelf of her bookcase. Sure enough the picture was missing. Greg must have spent some time bending it back and forth to make it look like it had been carried around in his wallet for years. She glanced around the room to see if anything else had been moved. It was a violating feeling knowing that he had been in her house, going through her private things, when she was out working in the back. She shivered and made sure that her curtains were drawn tightly closed before she changed into her pyjamas.
“Elana, what’s with you today?” asked Sam. “You’re completely distracted.”
“What?” Elana paused as she made an indentation in the soil and reached for a plant.
“You’re putting petunias in the shade baskets instead of impatiens,” said Sam with a grin.
Elana threw her hands up in the air in disgust. “I don’t believe it!”
“You gave that lady from Campbell River six flats of pansies when she’d asked for marigolds.”
“Don’t worry, I got it all straightened out for her, and she bought some of the pansies too because they looked so nice.”
“I’m sorry, Sam, I’ve got a lot on my mind.”
“Care to tell me about it?”
“It’s about Cody and his dad. I’m so confused – I don’t know what the right thing to do is. I’m so worried he’s going to get hurt.”
“Hold on there a minute – Cody’s dad? When did he get back in the picture?”
“Justie’s new boyfriend is my ex-husband. I need to tell Justie about it too.” She took off her gloves and threw them on the potting bench. “Everything’s such a mess! Greg is Cody’s father – there’s no escaping that - but does he deserve to be his dad? If I turn Cody against his father am I being unfair?”
Sam sat down and rubbed Elana’s shoulder. “It depends if you are doing it out of bitterness and spite, or if there are legitimate things Cody needs to know about his dad. Honesty is important, but some truths are best left unsaid.”
“I’ve never really told him much about his dad. He’s always seemed content with only me, but lately I’ve noticed that he wants a male figure in his life. But I don’t want to share him with Greg. Am I being selfish? I’ve got to do what’s right for Cody – not think about myself and what I want.”
Sam had begun removing all the petunias from the hanging baskets. “Elana, I don’t know if I’m the right person to ask about this. I’d probably just tell this Greg guy to go to hell – anyone who’s treated you badly can’t be worth the bother. Look, why don’t you take the rest of the day off. I think Joy and Chandra are home. Talk it over with them. I’ll fix these baskets and deal with all the customers.”
“But there’s so much work to do, and you covered for me yesterday too!”
“The work’s not going anywhere, Elana. It’ll still be here tomorrow. One day more or less won’t make much of a difference. Anyway – in your present headspace you’re more of a detriment out here than anything else.”
Elana smiled ruefully and gave Sam a quick hug. “Thanks. I owe you one.”
“And I won’t let you forget it,” Sam called after her as she left the greenhouse.
Elana, Joy and Chandra sat around the kitchen table nursing mugs of tea. Elana had just given them a detailed summary of her marriage and Greg’s reappearance in her life.
“Damn!” said Chandra. “I’d like to tie that guy up and drop him down a waterfall.”
“But isn’t it possible that he’s truly changed, like he said?” asked Joy.
“The guy’s a two-bit slimy reptile,” said Chandra. “I feel like such an idiot. When I met him I thought he was the cat’s @ss. He had me eating out of his hand.”
“If it’s any consolation, I married him,” said Elana bitterly.
“Oh honey,” said Joy. “I’m sure he really loved you at the time. How were you to know he was . . . that he had problems?”
“Joy – he’s a top rate con artist – stop trying to make excuses for him.” Chandra put her cup down with a bang. “He used Elana and now he’s trying to use Cody and Justie. He should be shot out of a cannon into the middle of a shark infested ocean with lead weights tied around his ankles.”
“It’s easy to say that, Chandra,” said Elana, “and if it only involved me, I’d feel the same way, but I have to think of Cody.”
“I am thinking of Cody,” said Chandra.
“But is it fair to tell a kid that his father is such a total loser? That those are the genes he carries? That his father never cared the least little bit for him? I don’t want to devastate him. And he really wants a dad. Look how he gravitates towards Colin and . . . Darien.”
“In my opinion he’d be much better off with Darien as a dad,” said Chandra, looking directly at Elana.
She flushed. “I wasn’t suggesting anything like that.”
“I was,” said Chandra. “Just because Greg is Cody’s biological father it doesn’t mean he’s the right dad for him. Anyway, I think he lost all his parental rights years ago.”
“He did give up custody,” said Elana. “But now he’s here and playing at being the prodigal father. It’s very confusing for Cody.”
“I’m sure he loves Cody and doesn’t want to hurt him,” said Joy. “Maybe if you talk to him and explain how you feel . . .”
“I don’t think Greg wants to hurt him either, Joy,” said Elana. “But he’s not thinking about Cody at all. He only wants to do what will make him look best in Justie’s eyes. And at this point that means he will act like a devoted and caring father. Even so, I can’t help but feel worried about letting Cody go out with him today. And I don’t know how he’ll react once I tell Justie the truth. If she believes me and dumps him, will he still want to build his relationship with Cody, or will he drop him and shatter his illusions?”
“It’s so hard to believe someone can be so . . . heartless,” said Joy. “Poor Justie – she’s so happy right now. If only she’d never met him.”
“I know it won’t be easy to tell Justie,” said Chandra, “but she’s a good kid. She’ll listen to you.”
“I can’t be so sure about that,” said Elana. “Greg is incredibly good at blinding people. She’ll probably think I’m acting out of jealousy and spite. It’s going to be like a scene from a soap opera.”
Chandra and Joy both reached their hands across the table and took Elana’s. The warmth in their eyes almost brought her to tears, but their encouragement gave her the resolution to face whatever she had to do protect both Justie and Cody. Greg might think he held all the good cards in a stacked deck, but she had something worth more than all his aces.
Elana walked over to Stewart Stables with Cody and stayed while he had his lesson. Despite the resolve she had felt earlier, one look at Justie showed her that it would be futile and possibly even detrimental to attempt to tell her anything about the travesty of her marriage to Greg. Justie’s look of sympathy that bordered on pity, and the soft understanding in her voice when she spoke to her, showed Elana that anything that she said to the girl would be humoured and dismissed as the ravings of a disheartened soul. The last thing she wanted to do was act in such a way as to feed that belief. There had to be some way to get through to Justie. Someone who could tell her the truth who she would believe implicitly, regardless of any brainwashing she’d had from Greg.
Elana leaned against the fence and stared out into the riding ring, trying to focus on Cody and the paces he was putting the horse through. He looked happy and confident up on the saddle. She didn’t want to be the one to dim that expression in his eyes. Sam was right – there were some truths that didn’t need to be voiced. The best thing to do about his outing with Greg was to keep her attitude casual and not make it look like a big thing in Cody’s eyes. He suddenly smiled and waved to a point beyond her, and she knew her respite was at an end.
She didn’t turn to look at Greg when he joined her at the fence. “I guess by now Justie thinks I’m pretty pathetic.”
“She found it quite easy to understand that you hadn’t gotten over me yet. Seems to explain why you haven’t fallen for her brother – that was something she’d had trouble accepting. Now it’s all crystal clear.” He looked over at her. “So, why haven’t you fallen for dearest Darien’s brooding charms?”
Elana felt the blood rush from her face. Why were people always coupling her name with Darien’s? First Chandra and now Justie and Greg. “It’s certainly nothing to do with any undying devotion for you.”
“He looks like a stuck up prig to me. Not your type.”
“He has a girlfriend anyway,” she said, and then wished she hadn’t. That was a comment that Greg might easily misinterpret. “And I’m not looking for a relationship with anyone.”
“The devoted mother!” he said with a grin. “So self-sacrificing. I’m proud of you.” He watched the riding lesson for a moment and then continued. “So, who’s the girl standing in your way?”
“I told you I’m not interested.”
“No, really. I’d love to help you out. It would be fun to be related again. Just think – if you married him we could be brother and sister. I’d be Cody’s uncle as well as his dad. One big happy family!”
“You make me sick,” said Elana, turning her back to him.
“Aw – don’t give me the cold shoulder. There’s not much likelihood of it anyway. The guy’s got too big of an opinion of himself to even look at you. No offence or anything.”
Elana kept her eyes trained on Cody and tried to pretend that the conversation wasn’t even happening. It was exactly what she had previously thought about Darien – that he wouldn’t ever have considered someone like her, and yet . . . . She didn’t want to think about that night when he’d told her he loved her. There was no point to it - Darien didn’t feel anything for her anymore - how could he?
“So – who’s the chick?” Greg persisted. “Justie never told me about anyone.”
“Lina,” said Elana, hoping it would shut him up.
Greg laughed. “Lina? You mean that hot piece that was all over me at the New Year’s party? I think she regretted introducing me to Justie. Darien had better watch out – girls like her need attention.”
Elana wanted nothing more than to end the conversation. “So where are you taking Cody?”
“I thought I’d take him for a burger and then go bowling, just the two of us. I’ll have him back by seven.”
“You know this is very hard for me. Don’t try to impress him by driving fast or you’ll never get to take him anywhere again.”
“I’m sure speeding wouldn’t impress a son of yours anyway. Don’t worry mama, I’ll go slow.”
“And he can’t sit in the front passenger seat unless the airbag is disconnected.”
“Justie already thought about that so it’s all taken care of.”
“I hate this.”
“Elana – I’m his dad – all I want to do is show him a good time.”
“And buy his love.”
“Might be the only way I can get it, so it’s worth a try.”
“If you hurt him I’ll kill you.”
“You play your part right and I’ll play mine. If he gets hurt it’ll be because of your actions, not something I’ve done.”
“You can’t use that kind of blackmail on me. Just be a human being for a change and think about someone other than yourself.”
Greg smirked. “That’s quite an alien concept – don’t know if I can get my head around it.”
With relief, Elana noticed that the lesson was over and Cody was walking his horse back to its box. She left Greg and went into the barn to talk to Cody as he rubbed the horse down. She tried to act as naturally as possible and not show her apprehension when she outlined Greg’s plans for the evening. She stayed with him until they were ready to go and then hugged him before he got into the car. She watched the yellow Mustang all the way down the driveway and as it drove along Haven Road, even as it was only a flicker of brightness between the trees. Justie had smilingly excused herself earlier and gone back up to the house to cook supper.
Elana felt at a complete loss. She knew she would be uneasy until Cody was returned to her. She couldn’t face going back to an empty house. Both Joy and Chandra were at work, and she didn’t want to disturb Sam out in his cosy shed. She wandered past the paddocks, not really thinking about where she was going, but wondering how she would get up the courage to approach Darien and ask him to warn Justie about Greg. He was the only person who could help her now, but the very thought of exposing herself to him filled her with dismay. The things she would have to admit about her marriage and herself were things she had shut from her mind until Greg had returned and harshly rekindled the memories. Telling Joy and Chandra had been difficult enough. Watching herself sink lower and lower in Darien’s eyes would be beyond anything she wished to experience.
The five o’clock sun was still bright in the sky. Feathery hemlocks threw long, jade-green swathes across the sloping path. Further along, sharp-voiced redwings sang high in the poplars that bordered the field in soft curves. As she neared the trees, Darien came out from a narrow trail, and stood in half shadow, coins of light dancing through the leaves upon his face. Elana faltered.
“Were you looking for me?” he asked as she hesitantly drew closer.
“No . . . yes . . . I mean, I need to talk to you. It’s very important.”
“Is everything all right?” He reached out a hand to her. Let it fall. “You’re shaking.”
“I’m fine – just a bit upset. Cody went out with Greg and I find it all so difficult to handle.”
His eyes were unreadable in the muted light, but his voice was soft when he spoke. Elana was grateful that it didn’t hold that note of pity she’d heard in Justie’s. “I know that Greg is Cody’s father. Justie told me a little bit about it.”
“But . . .” Elana took a deep breath and then looked up into Darien’s face. He stared back at her expectantly. “I don’t know exactly what Greg told her but he distorted the truth.”
“I’m not surprised.”
“You’re not? Did you know from the start that . . . he’s a phoney?”
“That’s not it. At first I thought he was an okay guy. But the few things she told me didn’t make sense because I know you.”
Elana found it hard to keep up the eye contact. She ducked her head. When he’d said, <I>I know you</I> with such conviction, she wished it were true. But he’d soon find out how weak she really was. “I’d have thought that reports of my unbalanced mind would only have been corroborated by my actions.”
“It was a picture of someone who is weak. You are one of the strongest, most determined people I know.” He was quiet for a moment and then added. “I’ve never thought of you as unbalanced.”
She felt the colour creeping up her face and blessed the shadows that they stood in. In a small voice she said, “Is that supposed to make me feel better? After all, I’ve accused you of being insane.”
He laughed lightly. “We don’t need to get into all that again. Look, if you want to talk, why don’t we walk down to the Tsolum River? It’s just at the end of this path.”
Elana nodded and let him lead the way – the path was too narrow to walk side by side. The river was shallow with rocks scattered throughout that caused the water to swirl and eddy around them in little rapids. They sat on two large rocks that sloped down from the banks. The sound of the running water was soothing, the evening sun mellow.
“Is the water cold?” Elana felt a little overwhelmed. It was nothing like she had expected. She’d thought she would have to convince Darien to take the time to listen to her, but instead he’d been open and willing to talk. He seemed to understand the urgency without having it explained. She had no idea why he was being so nice to her.
“Yes, but it feels very fresh. I had my shoes and socks off and was wading in it just before I came up the path.”
“But, wait. Is there something I’m keeping you from?”
“This is more important than anything I had to do. I know how difficult it must be for you to let Cody go out somewhere with Greg when you haven’t seen him for years. He’s a very special kid. I’d worry too, if he were mine. Actually I do worry, even though . . .” He let the thought hang.
“But, I can’t not let him have a relationship with his father, can I? Not if he wants one?”
“It depends what Greg has done. I know he hasn’t been in the picture for a long time. I’m not prying – you don’t have to tell me anything – it’s just that I know my information is faulty, considering the source.”
While they had been talking Elana had been removing her shoes and socks. Now she threw them onto the twisted roots of a tree and dipped her feet into the water. The bite of the cold cleared her head and helped her organise her thoughts. Finally she looked up at Darien and faced his grey eyes again. It wasn’t as difficult as she had expected – there was a light in them that invited her to speak. “Yes I do. I have to tell you everything. And not because of Cody. I have to tell you everything because of Justie.”
“Because of Justie?”
“Be prepared to revise anything you’ve ever thought of me, because I let myself get used completely. I was silly, weak, and pathetic. But Greg hasn’t changed one bit since I met him and I know he’s going to try to do the exact same thing to Justie that he did to me, and I can’t let him - even if it does mean that Cody gets hurt in the process.”
Darien sat and listened without interrupting. Elana’s voice broke and she stumbled over her words at times, but the susurration of the leaves in the light breeze echoed by the flow of the water calmed her. She couldn’t look at him as she spoke. Instead she focused on the play of light and shadow in the movement of the river. She felt disengaged from the pain of her memories. She was able to admit to having been duped, used, and abandoned dispassionately, without tears or resentment. It was as if it was no longer her own life but someone else’s. She focused on Greg’s manipulations and duplicity but didn’t downplay the way she had allowed him to take control of her finances to the point that she had no involvement at all and so could not prove whether that money had been embezzled slowly and carefully with intent or simply lost through bad investments as Greg claimed. Finally she told him how Greg had wanted to hide the fact that they had ever been married and not acknowledge Cody as his son.
“He only told Justie that we had been married because I refused to keep it a secret and let him use her in exchange for not telling Cody he was his father.”
“Thank you.” It was the first thing Darien had said throughout the long confession.
Elana climbed off her rock and went over to the tree where she’d thrown her shoes and socks. Darien came and waited beside her while she put them on, then they started walking slowly back up the trail.
“I would have told Justie myself, but I could see that he’d made her believe that anything I said would be due to jealousy and bitterness, and some kind of mental instability. But if you tell her, I know she’ll believe you.”
“I’m glad you came to me instead.” His voice was very strained. “Justie had a relationship in Victoria that ended badly, so Greg caught her on the rebound. She’s very vulnerable right now. If I tell her in the wrong way, I could lose her. The way you described him gaining your confidence, I believe he’s done just the same with her. He’s discovered her greatest weakness and used it to his benefit. She’ll cling to the belief that he loves her just the way you did. I hope you don’t mind, but I want to wait a week or so before I tell her.”
Elana stood still and stared at him. “Wait - why?”
“I need a bit more time to figure out the best way to go about it.”
“But if he has more time he’ll get a stronger hold over her. And what about Cody?”
“I think . . .” Darien hesitated, and then continued reluctantly, “I think someone should always be there when he’s with Cody, so he has less chance to manipulate him.”
Elana understood his reluctance. A few short months ago she would have resented his comment and exploded. But she realised his advice was well meant, not interfering. It showed his concern for Cody and she was touched. “I’m so unsure about what to do. I haven’t told Cody all about Greg yet. Do you think I’m making a big mistake?”
“No. I think you were right not to do that for now. When I can convince Justie that Greg is only using her, and she stops seeing him, he’ll have no reason to impress Cody any longer. He’ll be out of his life as quickly as he came into it.”
“I hope you’re right.”
“Don’t worry Elana. Cody is a smart kid. He’ll see through Greg.”
“I was married to him for years and never saw through him until he abandoned us. What kind of idiot does that make me?”
“I didn’t mean that, Elana. I don’t think any less of you for being taken in by him. He’s a handsome man. He has tons of charm. He bombarded you with love when that was what you most wanted. Cody has never lacked love, and he’s not going to be exposed to Greg long enough for him to do any lasting damage.”
Darien hoped that what he’d said was true. Elana’s admissions had struck him deeply. Not only what she had said but being with her and hearing her voice. The fact that she’d come to him in the first place. That she now trusted him enough to confide in him. That her concern for his sister had overridden her dislike. And now, after she’d finished unburdening herself, despite anything she may have thought to the contrary, he knew he loved her more deeply than ever. Even though his concern for Justie and Cody should have been uppermost in his thoughts, she was. He’d had to withhold the urge to reach out to her from the moment he’d first seen her walking down the path, her face creased with worry. He’d wanted to smooth away those lines with his hands – instead he’d had to use his voice to ease her concerns.
She stood and looked at him and her eyes suddenly began to fill with tears in reaction to his words. This time Darien didn’t think. He just put his arms around her and held her close. Whispered into her hair that everything would be all right as her tears wetted his shoulder. Stroked her back. And her arms came around him too, and clung as she wept silently. He knew it meant no more than a release of all her pent up emotion, the need for comfort in a stressful situation. He knew that if he were Sam or Colin she would have done the very same thing, but that knowledge didn’t diminish the sweet feeling of holding her in his arms.
After a few minutes she pushed herself away, wiped her eyes, and apologised.
“Your shirt is all wet now,” she said, her earlier awkwardness returning.
“That’s okay, as long as you feel better.”
“Thanks. I do, a bit.”
They walked back in silence and Elana didn’t protest as he went all the way down his driveway by her side, and up her driveway right to her door.
“If you need anything, call me,” he said. “Do you have my number?”
“I’ve got the one for the stables.”
“I’ll give you my cell.”
“Okay, just a minute – I’ll go into the house and get a pen and paper.”
She was back in a moment and he took the pen and notepad from her and deftly printed the number. As he handed them back to her their fingers touched momentarily.
“Take care,” he said. It wasn’t much more than a whisper, but it was all he could manage.
“Thanks.” She smiled, flicked her hazel eyes up to his face, and then closed the door.
As he walked back to his house he had no more coherent thought than that in all the times he had described the colour while writing his story about Lanea, he had never got it quite right. But when he entered his office he was all business. He sat at his desk, picked up his phone, and dialled Carl’s number.
Elana heard the Mustang come up the drive a few minutes after Darien had left. She ran outside to get Cody before Greg could even open his door.
“No need to get out,” she said to Greg as she took Cody’s hand. “Thanks for bringing him home on time.”
“Hey! How could you doubt me? Did you know this kid of ours is a bowling pro? Tell your mom how many strikes you had, Codester!”
“Four,” said Cody with a smile as he looked up at his mom.
“So, I’ll see ya in a couple of days, hey Sport? I’ll take you to the park to play catch.”
“Sure, okay, thanks um, er, Greg.”
“Dad, son. Call me dad.” Greg grinned and then turned to Elana. “I’ll give you a ring and set it up.”
Elana didn’t answer him, just pulled Cody closer as Greg waved goodbye and backed down the driveway.
“You okay, mom?” asked Cody.
“I’m fine, now that you’re back,” she said as she hugged him. “How was it?”
“We had fun, but it’s sorta weird. It’s hard to think of him as my dad when I don’t really know him.” He looked up at Elana and then added. “You don’t like him very much, do you?”
“I don’t have much reason to, honey. Come on, let’s go inside.”
“Well, he said that he made some mistakes before that got you mad at him. He told me to tell you how sorry he is for everything. He said he hopes you both can be friends again.”
“He shouldn’t be using you as a messenger,” said Elana. “It’s not fair. He should talk to me about it.” She took his face in her hands and looked into his eyes. “I’m sorry, hon. I’m sorry you’re caught in the middle of this.”
“It’s not so bad. We had fun, honest. It’s just . . . he’s so . . . friendly – like he’s known me forever. And he hasn’t. And he wants me to call him dad, but . . . it doesn’t sound right yet.”
“Don’t worry about it, bud. Just call him Greg if it feels more natural to you. You don’t have to do or say anything you don’t want to.”
The week passed quite uneventfully. The weather was changeable; a few sunny hours were soon taken over by dismal, grey skies and sudden showers. The end of April was fast approaching and Elana felt overwhelmed by the work involved in keeping up the supply of bedding plants and gearing for what would be her biggest sales day in the year – the Saturday before Mothers’ Day. And on top of it all she had to deal with her concern for Cody and her worries about Greg and his insidious charm. They had gone out together twice more, but both times Elana’s friends had ensured that they were not alone.
After Greg had rung Elana to set up the next outing, Chandra had called Colin immediately. When Greg came up to the house to pick Cody up, Colin was sitting on the front stairs beside him.
“Hey Greg,” he said with a grin, “I was going to do some shopping with Chandra, but playing catch with you and Cody sounded like much more fun, so I let her take my car and she left me here. Hope you don’t mind me inviting myself.”
There was nothing for Greg to do but accept it as Cody ran over to the Mustang and scrambled into the back seat and Colin took the front. The smug expression on his face turned Greg’s eyes rock hard.
Two days later, Joy accompanied them to the movies. “I’ve wanted to see Robots for a long time, but no one would go with me. Carl thinks he’s too old for animated movies and poor Elana is just too busy. I know you won’t mind me tagging along.”
Greg complained later to Elana about sending her watchdogs but she just gave him a hard glare and told him to expect someone to turn up every time they went out together.
“Hey, babe, I’m getting the feeling that you still don’t trust me,” said Greg. “I’m the kid’s dad, or don’t you remember? All I want’s to show him a good time. I think I should have the right to do that on my own.”
“You’ll see him on my terms or not at all,” said Elana. “I’m the one with custody.”
“Fine! All your over-protective friends can come next time. I’ll rent a minivan.” Greg slammed his car door and drove off spraying gravel. When he called her to organise taking Cody up Mount Washington on the coming weekend, he made a slick apology for his outburst, and then followed it with, “Justie is coming too, but anyone you care to send with Cody will be welcome. The more the merrier – we’ll have a picnic. Why don’t you come? It’ll be just like old times.”
Elana curbed her urge to slam the phone down. “If Justie’s going too, I don’t have a problem with it,” she said and then rang off as soon as she was able to get him to stop talking. She threw herself onto her bed and hugged her pillow tightly to her chest. She wanted nothing more than to call Darien and hear his voice instead of having Greg’s resounding in her ears. She thought back to the day down by the river when Darien had listened to her with such understanding and compassion. She had felt so safe in his arms. But it did no good to remember the warmth of his body, its comforting strength, the touch of his hands on her back, the smell of ginger and salt as her tears wetted his shirt. Calling him would be a mistake. It was enough to know that he believed in her. That he thought she was strong. And she was. She had always managed on her own before, and this time it would be no different. She wiped her eyes, punched her pillow back into place at the headboard, and then ran her fingers over the carving that centred it. The one winged bird. Only one wing, but it was still flying. They were much alike.
Darien grabbed the sheaf of papers that had come through on his fax in the last few days and headed downstairs to the kitchen. Justie was rummaging around in the cupboards and the kettle was on.
“Have you seen the Earl Grey?” she asked without taking her head out of the cupboard. “Mrs. R. always moves things when she cleans.”
“I think we’re out of it. Why don’t we have green?”
“Okay,” said Justie, putting the packet on the counter. “I drove out to Cumberland this morning and got us some doughnuts from Old Country Bakery.”
Darien couldn’t help but think that what with all he had to say to her, they’d need even more than the best doughnuts on the island. “You’re wonderful! Amazing!”
She grinned. “I only bought half a dozen, so you can go easy on the flattery. And I promised Greg I’d save him two. I’ve been bragging about them to him for weeks now.”
Darien sat in his chair and threw the faxes on the table. “About Greg – we have to talk.”
Justie grabbed the kettle just as it began to sing and filled the teapot. She set them each two cups, placed the plate of doughnuts between them, and then sat, leaning on her elbows and staring at him intently. “I’ve noticed that your attitude towards him has changed. And he has too – he tries not to show it, but he’s hurt by it.” She stretched out her hand and touched his. “Please, Darien, be fair. I know what I told you about Elana hit you hard. I can see you’re still hooked on her. But don’t hold it against him – he’s the best thing that ever happened to me. Don’t you want me to be happy?”
“Yes. That’s exactly what I want. But he won’t make you happy in the long run, honey. I’ve talked to Elana. She told me everything about her marriage to Greg.”
“He told me she would try something,” said Justie, pouring the tea. “Darien, don’t let your feelings for her blind you to the truth. She has problems. She needs help. You told me yourself about how unstable she was that time you helped with the greenhouses. She attacked you! Greg says she’s stopped taking her meds. He’s trying to do what he can – he’s more concerned about Cody than anything else. I think she’s overworked herself and ready for a breakdown. Instead of lecturing me about Greg you should help him convince her to see her doctor.”
“Justie, Elana is the sanest person I know. That whole thing at the greenhouses was my fault. It was a misunderstanding – that’s all. It’s got nothing to do with this. Listen to me please.”
“Why should I if you are just going to feed me her lies about Greg?”
“Greg’s the one who’s lying.”
“Darien, I know you care about her. I know you want to believe her, and I know this is even harder for you because she still wants him.”
“If she wants him, then why did she leave him in the first place?”
Justie took a sip of her tea and then placed her cup down gently. “I expected you to say that. It’s complicated. He screwed up some investments when Cody was a baby and lost a lot of money, and she was furious. She took Cody and ran, just to hurt him. To pay him back. He couldn’t trace her – her family didn’t even know where she was. So he concentrated on building back their investments so that he could prove himself to her when he found her. So he could provide his son with a stable home. And in his spare time he followed all the leads he could, but she kept moving. He was devastated when he discovered that she’d managed to divorce him on the grounds of desertion. But that made him give up his dream of their ever being a family again. And now, suddenly by accident, he’s been reunited with Cody.”
“That’s a heart wrenching story, but quite different from the one I’ve been told.”
“Of course she’ll have told you something different. She wants to break Greg and me up. She wants him back now, Darien. I’m sorry – I know it hurts – but she still loves him. And . . . well . . . he’s rich now. She won’t have to slave in those greenhouses anymore if he goes back to her. She’s really putting the pressure on, using Cody as a pawn.”
Darien put his cup down and tried to keep his voice in control when he answered; his anger at Greg was rising. “Listen to yourself, Justie! Don’t you know anything about her? If all she cared about was money, why would she have told me to shove it?”
“It’s not just the money. She never stopped loving him – it’s her sickness that makes her behave so erratically. That’s what stopped her from going back to him.” She gave him a look of deep sympathy, and added gently. “If she didn’t have such strong feelings for him, she’d have fallen for you.”
Darien shook his head. “Let’s leave me out of this for now.” His voice softened as he continued. “Are you ready to hear her side now? You owe her that.”
Justie crossed her arms over her chest and glared at him. “I’m listening, but that doesn’t mean I’ll believe it. Greg’s told me what a good liar she is.”
“She only told me this for one reason – because she didn’t want to see you hurt like she was. Greg swept her off her feet when she met him. She fell in love with him easily and she was convinced he loved her. Without her realising it, he managed to separate her from her family and friends during the early years of their marriage. She had a legacy from her grandmother, and he supervised the investments. He was an investment banker, after all, and she trusted him. From what she said it sounds like they were happy and that she didn’t suspect anything was wrong with their marriage. Then, just after Cody’s first birthday, he left, supposedly on a business trip, but that was the last she heard from him until that day she saw him in our tack room.”
“According to her, she’s blameless,” said Justie. “At least Greg admits to having made mistakes. Nothing you’ve said has changed my mind about him.”
“I’m not finished,” said Darien. His tea was cold but he took a sip of it just the same. The doughnuts still lay untouched on the plate. “He left her with nothing. Every cent she had ever had was embezzled. She didn’t even have enough to pay the rent. All her jewellery that was of any value was gone. She sold most of her furniture and moved into a basement suite and she’s had to scrimp and save and work her butt off ever since then just to support herself and Cody. After her divorce was finalised her father gave her the greenhouse property, so she came here to start over. She’s shown nothing but courage and determination since I’ve known her. I see no reason not to believe her over a chance-met guy whose only attribute is that he can charm the socks off of everyone he meets.”
“It can’t be true, Darien. Don’t you see? Greg made some mistakes in his past but he’s learned from them. He’s grown as a person. And he’s worked hard to go from nothing and make a success of his life. His one regret was that he’d lost his child and now that he’s found him, he couldn’t be happier. He told me, even before he knew about Cody, that there was a big empty hole in his life because his ex-wife had stolen his boy. He feels things deeply. He loves Cody, and he loves me, and I love him. She can’t spoil this for me with her bitterness and her envy and her greed.”
“Justie – please – he’s only using you. He wants to marry you, take control of your money, and bleed you dry, like he did to Elana. Like he did to his other ex-wives. And he doesn’t care how much he hurts you, or Cody. The only person he cares about is himself.”
“What are you talking about? What other ex-wives? You are so in love with Elana that you’ll believe anything she tells you.”
“I knew if it was only a case of her word against Greg’s that I’d have a tough time convincing you of anything. Elana doesn’t know about his other marriages, but it’s all right here.” He slid the documents across the table to her. “Take a look. By my calculations his second marriage wasn’t even legal. He was married and divorced before Elana’s divorce to him came through. The third wife caught him trying to clean her out and charged him with fraud. There’s a warrant out for his arrest in Manitoba. We’ve notified the authorities that he’s here.”
Justie looked through the papers, her face ashen. “You and Elana?”
“Carl and me. I called him and he set me up with a private investigator. This is all true, Justie. I’m sorry.”
“But . . . it can’t be!” She looked up at him, pleading, tears slipping out of her eyes.
Darien got up from his chair and crouched by her side, circling his arms around her. “He’s a very talented confidence trickster. You aren’t the first person he’s tried to con, but if I have anything to do with it, you’ll be the last.”
“But . . . I love . . . I thought I loved him. It was all so real. So sincere.”
Darien stroked her hair. “I know, I know sweetie. But none of it meant anything to him.”
“But . . . couldn’t he really have loved me, anyway?”
“You were only a mark, Justie. Would it make it any better to think that he cared about you too, but was willing to use you?”
“But maybe, this time . . .”
“I don’t think so, Justie. A guy like him loves no one but himself.”
“Darien it hurts so much!”
“I know,” he said, as she crawled off her chair and into his arms. They sat together on the floor, and she alternated between crying and saying, “It’s not true, not true.” After a long while Justie got up and sat at the table again. Darien brought her a box of tissues and she blew her nose.
“Part of me wishes you never told me,” she said as she read the faxes one more time. “I was so happy, and now I’m numb. Completely numb.”
“I wish he was the nice guy we all thought. But wishing something won’t change reality. It’s good that we found out now, before your feelings became more established. Before he married you and separated us.”
“What do you mean?”
“He never would have been able to steal from you with me around. He would have tried his best to poison your mind against me.”
“No one could do that.” Justie picked up a doughnut and took a bite. “He never would have succeeded, but he would have made my life hell.” She put the doughnut down and cried, “The best doughnuts in the world and I can’t taste them, all because of stupid Greg!”
“That’s more like it,” said Darien.
“And to think I was going to save him two. Instead I’ll eat them all and make myself sick doing it!” She burst out crying again and lay her head down on the table. “Oh, God, Darien! What am I going to do?”
“I’m going to make some more tea, and we’re going to sit here and drink it, and then, when you’re ready to face it, you’re going to break up with him and never look back.”
“I don’t know if I can do that.”
“I’ll come with you, if you like.”
“No. I’ll do it. Only I’m afraid that the moment he smiles at me I’ll cave. He’s so gorgeous.”
“And slick. And fake.”
Justie read the papers again, this time taking in more of what was documented there. Darien brought her fresh tea, and she drank it. She finished her doughnut slowly and then pushed away the plate. Her eyes were red and swollen, but dry.
“Why can’t I ever find the right kind of guy?”
Darien rubbed her arm. “You will.”
“You know – I have no idea if I love him or hate him. All I know is that I hurt like hell. But he’s going to be here soon, so now’s as good a time as any to tell him to take a hike. I’m going to wash my face and get some makeup on. I’d like to say thanks, Darien, but I don’t think I can yet.”
Darien watched her leave the room. He felt drained and saddened. He could only imagine how much worse it was for her. He bit in to his doughnut and agreed that it was a wretched waste of a trip to Cumberland especially to get them. He might as well have been eating Styrofoam.
Elana came in from the greenhouses at 1:30 and washed her hands. She still had a lot of work to do, but she’d forgotten to take something out of the freezer for supper. The message light was blinking on her phone, so she picked it up and dialled *98. One new message. Greg’s voice came across the line, loud and clear.
“Well, I hope you’re happy. I don’t know how you did it, but you’ve screwed me royally. You went crying to Darien and now he’s brainwashed his sister and everything’s over. Justie was going to be my biggest con. And my last. Now, thanks to you, my plans have changed. You’re going to regret messing with me.”
Elana stood in shock as the voice mail asked her to press seven to save the message, nine to delete it. Then she hung up and grabbed the phonebook. She soon found the number for the school and dialled, tapping her fingers impatiently on the counter as she waited for someone to pick up.
“Miracle Beach School, how may I help you?”
“Hi. It’s Elana Barnes. I’d like to speak to my son, Cody – it’s an emergency. He’s in Miss Halburton’s class.”
“Hold on a moment, I’ll put you through.”
Elana waited, wishing she wasn’t tied to the phone line, but at the school right now, herself, with Cody’s hand safely in hers. Every moment she waited seemed like an hour.
“Miss Halburton, it’s Cody’s mom. Could I talk to him please?”
“Are you calling about his appointment? He forgot but it’s okay – his dad picked him up about ten minutes ago.”
“Yes, is anything wrong?”
Elana clattered the phone down onto the cradle without even saying goodbye. When she picked it up again her hands were shaking uncontrollably. She reached into her pocket and took out a wrinkled piece of paper, smoothed it, and carefully dialled the number that was written there.
Elana hadn’t waited. Once she’d got off the phone with Darien she grabbed a leather case from her dresser drawer and ran down her driveway to meet his black truck as it emerged onto Haven Road. As soon as she was seated inside she unzipped the case and started shuffling through the pockets.
“It’s not here,” she said, pulling out all the cards and papers and spreading them on the seat.
“Looks like he’s got Cody’s birth certificate,” said Darien into his cell phone. “I don’t care how fast you drive. It’ll be tight with either ferry – just get there!”
Darien put his phone down to negotiate the right turn onto Headquarters road and, ignoring the 60km speed limit, drove as fast as possible along the route to the Inland Island Highway. “Just hope no one is on the one-lane bridge if we hit the red light,” he said. “Don’t worry Elana – he can’t get off this island with Cody.”
Elana held onto the door handle as the truck swung wildly around the curve before the bridge. The light was red but there was no one in front of them and the bridge was empty. A car was coming towards the green light in the opposite direction. Darien accelerated and his truck surged forward, rattling across the Bailey bridge as the oncoming car swerved and braked, horn blaring.
“How do you know which ferry he’ll be trying to catch?” asked Elana. “There are so many of them.”
“Most of them just go to smaller islands. I’d say he’s either heading for Departure Bay or Duke Point. It doesn’t make any sense to go to Victoria – the drive is twice as long and he’ll end up in the same place as if he went by Duke Point.”
“But what about the Victoria ferry to Port Angeles? Don’t you think he wants to take Cody out of the country?”
“That’s not a car ferry, Elana. No – I think that if he’s planning on crossing the border he’ll go to Duke Point. Blaine’s only a half hour drive from the Tsawwassen terminal. If he’s intending to head across Canada he’ll take the ferry from Departure Bay. One leaves at 3:00, the other at 3:15. I figured we should go to Duke Point. Colin’s on his way to Departure Bay and Carl’s calling the police. After he tells them everything I’m sure they’ll put an APB out on Greg and his car. By the time we get to the ferry, he’ll be in custody and you’ll get Cody right back. Promise. Nothing bad will happen to him.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m sure. The speed I’m going we could beat Greg to the ferry even though he’s got at least a fifteen minute head start on us.”
“He’s probably driving this fast too,” said Elana, cringing at the idea of Cody being hurtled down the highway at 130kmh.
“He doesn’t need to.” Darien put as much reassurance in his voice as he could.
“Oh God! Why didn’t I tell the school Greg wasn’t allowed to pick him up? Why did I even let Cody think it was okay to do stuff with Greg? Why didn’t I tell him all about the bastard?”
“You had no idea this would happen, Elana. It’s my fault.”
She stared at him. “How on earth is it your fault?”
“This morning I told Justie everything you told me. And more. I found out things about Greg that convinced her and she broke up with him. I should have known he wouldn’t just cut his losses and leave. I should have known he’d retaliate. I should have called you right away and warned you.”
“Both of us blaming ourselves won’t change what’s happening,” said Elana, holding her arms tightly around herself. “All I can think of right now is Cody and what he’s going through. He’s alone with Greg and I feel so powerless. And my biggest fear is I’ll never see him again.”
“Greg reacted out of anger, Elana, but he never thought this thing through at all. Leaving you that message was the stupidest thing he could have ever done if he had a hope of getting to the mainland with Cody. There’ll be cops swarming all over him at the terminal. It’ll be a scary couple of hours for Cody, but you’ll be together with him soon.” He looked at his watch. “We’ll be there in just under an hour.”
The scenery flashed past as Darien’s truck ate up the highway. Elana looked out the window without seeing the blurred trees. Her chest was tight, her throat dry. Her face felt white-hot. Darien passed her a bottle of water and she forced herself to take sips from it, almost choked trying to remember how to swallow. He said things to her in a soft voice and spoke quietly on his cell phone. She was barely aware of any of it. It was as if she was in a separate space and the only thing in there with her was the thought-obliterating worry that consumed her.
They were going through Nanaimo when Darien’s phone rang. The words he spoke as he answered it didn’t register with Elana, but the change in the tenor of his voice did. She stirred and looked at him. His face was no longer sombre. Light shone in his eyes as he flipped his phone shut. “They’ve got him!” he shouted. “He’s at Duke Point. We’ll be there in ten minutes.”
“Cody?” asked Elana.
“He’s fine, Elana,” Darien grabbed her hand and squeezed it. “He’s fine.”
Darien was back on the phone again as he headed towards the terminal. He skirted the ferry line-up and made for a gate that was manned by two RCMP officers. Beyond them, in the lot, three police cars with lights flashing surrounded a yellow Mustang. Darien spoke quickly with one of the officers and was waved through. Elana’s door was opened as the truck stopped, and a policewoman helped her out.
“Elana Barnes? There’s someone here who really wants to see you.”
The door of the closest police cruiser opened and Cody ran into Elana’s arms. She hugged him close and kissed him and repeated over and over, “I was afraid I’d never see you again.”
“I knew you’d come and get me mom. I told him that the whole time. ‘My mom won’t ever let you take me from her,’ I said. He just laughed and said that you told him he could. But I never believed him. Never.”
“Oh honey!” Elana laughed through her tears. “Are you okay? He didn’t hurt you did he?”
“Nope. He told me we were going on a little holiday, and he had a backpack with some of my clothes. But I thought that was weird because you never told me about it, and because he told the school I had a dentist appointment. But we were already driving by that time so I couldn’t try to get out of the car or anything.”
Elana stroked his head and held him even closer. “It’s all over now, sweetie.”
Darien had been speaking with the officers. He came over to Elana and Cody and said, “They’re taking him to the station now. They want us to go over there and make statements. It shouldn’t take too long.”
Elana looked over at the other police cars as Darien crouched down on one knee and talked to Cody. Greg was sitting in the back seat of one of the cars. He grinned at her. She turned away, not wanting to see his face, disgusted that he could sit there and smile at her after all that he had done. “You are never, ever going to see Cody again,” she said under her breath as the car pulled away.
“Hop in,” said Darien to Cody. “They said it was okay for you to come with us now.”
Not too long at the police station had turned out to be a few hours. Elana drank the coffee they gave her and stayed with Cody while they questioned him. Afterwards Darien sat with him while she went in to make her statement and then Darien was questioned too. When they were finally free to go they found a quiet place for dinner before heading back out on the highway to Courtenay.
“I’m so stuffed,” said Cody as he sat in between Elana and Darien in the truck.
“It’s amazing there’s still room up here for you,” said Darien.
Elana just laughed and hugged him to her. She looked over to Darien and said, “This ride is going to be so much better than the one to Nanaimo. I wasn’t good company at all.”
“I was happy to drive you.”
“I wasn’t good company either,” said Cody. “I kept telling Greg to turn around and take me home.”
“I’m sorry, honey. I should have looked out for you better.”
Cody looked up at her, his face crinkling in concern. “Do I have to like Greg just ‘cause he’s my dad?”
“I know it sounds cold to say you don’t have to like him, even though he’s your father, but it’s true. He hasn’t done anything to deserve it and you have nothing to feel guilty about if you can’t like him.”
“He’s going to go to jail now isn’t he?”
“Yes, not only for trying to kidnap you, but for some other stuff he did in Manitoba.”
“Will I have to visit him in jail?”
“Of course not. You don’t even have to see him ever again. I’m sorry that . . . that you don’t have the kind of father you deserve.”
“That’s okay mom. I’ve got you, and you’re the best mom ever,” Cody said, snuggling sleepily against her.
“I’ll second that,” said Darien.
The drive home was very relaxed. Darien drove slightly under the speed limit. Everyone concerned had been called from the police station in Nanaimo, so his cell phone was now silent. He slipped a Nick Drake CD into the player and leaned back comfortably in his seat as the soft tones flowed over him. From time to time he looked over at Elana whose head had fallen to rest upon Cody’s. Her face, which had been so pinched and drawn on the way down, was now serene. He longed to reach over and touch the soft curve of her cheek, but contented himself with a feather touch to the back of her hand that lay gently upon Cody’s waist. The sun was slipping slowly behind the mountainous backbone of the island and the sky was fading and blushed with pink.
Darien almost wished the trip wouldn’t end, but soon he was turning off onto Piercy Road, and then he was stopping at the light for the one-lane bridge. Elana awoke at that moment and looked around her.
“That was the scariest moment of all, when you crossed this bridge on the red light,” she said.
“I’m afraid I was a little more worried for Cody than I let on,” he admitted.
She flashed him a smile that made something turn over inside of him. “You were so reassuring. I don’t think I’ve even thanked you yet, but you dropped everything you were doing and spent your whole day helping me. It was so wonderful of you.”
“I’d do anything for you and Cody.”
Before she turned her head away, Darien noticed an almost wary flicker in her eyes.
“Thanks,” she whispered. When she looked back at him her face was open once again.
“I’m glad it all ended so well. Cody handled it amazingly.”
“He did,” she agreed. “I can’t believe he said it was cool when the cop cars surrounded them with their lights flashing. I would have been so freaked out.”
“Kids like those flashing lights! Anyway – he knew he was safe and that it meant he’d be reunited with you. What could be more cool than that?”
Elana smiled again, warmly. He turned up her driveway and concentrated on avoiding the ruts and potholes, just to steady the surge of feeling the smile had induced. He stopped close to her front door. She undid her seatbelt and then went to unfasten Cody’s.
“I don’t want to wake him,” she said in a low voice. “Even though he won’t admit it, he’s had a very tough day.”
“I’ll carry him in for you.”
“He’s not too heavy for me.”
“I know that,” said Darien with a grin. “I’ve seen what you can lug around. But I want to. You open the doors and pull his blankets back and I’ll do the carrying for a change.”
“I’m getting déjà vu,” said Elana as she opened the front door. “You did this for me once before.”
“Only Cody’s a lot lighter than that damned trunk,” said Darien with a laugh.
“Well, it’s almost the same place you are taking him to – through here into my room, and then through this door and here’s his bed.”
Darien lay Cody down on his mattress and slipped off his shoes.
“He’s okay like that,” said Elana as Darien looked up at her questioningly, then she pulled the blankets up around Cody’s chin and gave him a hug and a kiss on his forehead.
Darien felt a rush of feeling for the two of them, and turned quickly away and went back through the door into Elana’s bedroom. He walked over to the dresser and ran his hands along the carving. As he stood there, looking at the furniture he remembered so well, he heard her close the door to Cody’s little room and come up behind him.
“You remember the other time I was here?” he asked.
“Yes.” Her voice wavered.
“You were upset with me. I thought it was just because you’d hurt your back, but now . . . anyway – do you know why I stayed in your room for a bit after I put down that trunk?”
“No,” she said, hesitant.
“It’s nothing bad,” Darien said, the corners of his mouth curving up. “I was looking at your bedroom furniture. Where did you get it?”
“The lady from that curio shop in town found it for me in a farmer’s barn. Isn’t it beautiful? I’d never seen anything like it.”
“I have. My mother had a set just like this. After she died my dad sold it and bought an expensive new bedroom suite. He didn’t want to be reminded, but I wished he’d never sold it. I wanted him to give it to me back then. I’ve looked in antique shops for something similar for years, so you can imagine my surprise that day when I found it here, in your house.”
“Do you think it’s the same furniture?”
“It’s a little more worn than I remember – the bird on the headboard had both its wings back then, but it’s too much of a coincidence for it not to be, isn’t it?”
Elana was looking up at Darien as he spoke about the furniture and coincidences. The only thing she could think about was what the strange old lady had said. The daughter she had foreseen. Was that really a vision from the future, or something from the bed’s past? He had stopped speaking and was waiting expectantly for an answer of some sort. She had lost her train of thought. His eyes were a very light grey and seemed to be coming closer to hers. She could see glints of silver radiating from his pupils. His finger came up, traced a satin line down her cheek. She leaned towards him, and suddenly, in that split second, remembered Lina. As she turned her face away his lips grazed her ear, her hair. She ran from the room.
He followed her quickly. She turned to face him, her back against the fireplace.
“What’s the matter?” he asked. “I thought . . . I mean, I know we were in your bedroom, but I wasn’t . . . I wasn’t thinking of <I>that</I>. I only wanted to kiss you. I thought you wanted to kiss me too. Did I get it wrong again?”
“You are forgetting someone.”
“I know Cody is sleeping in the other room. I’m sorry. I was only going to kiss you.”
“I’m not talking about Cody,” said Elana, turning her back to him and leaning her head against the mantelpiece.
Elana could hear the confusion in his voice. What kind of morals did he have? Why didn’t he think she would mind? “Your girlfriend. I can see it doesn’t seem to bother you, but I don’t kiss guys who have girlfriends.”
“My girlfriend? Who . . . oh God! I’d forgotten all about that.”
“That’s convenient! Maybe it’s easy for you to forget about Lina, but I can’t. Go – please – go. You’ve spoiled a perfect evening.”
“Elana.” Darien came up behind her and touched her tentatively on the shoulder. “Turn around and look at me, please?”
“I didn’t forget about my girlfriend. I don’t have a girlfriend. I just forgot that you said that about Lina and me. I had a lot of other things on my mind back then. Lina has never been my girlfriend.”
“Then why didn’t you deny it?”
“I didn’t see any point to it. You hated me so what difference would it make if I had a girlfriend or not?”
“But . . . what about the way Lina acts all the time? Like she owns you?” Elana finally turned around. She had to see his face to see if she could tell that what he was saying was really true.
He blushed. “She would like to be my girlfriend, I admit. But I’ve never encouraged her. Can you honestly say you’ve seen me treat her like . . . like I was into her? She’s Carl’s sister and she’s good at the job she does for the stables. I put up with her because of that.”
Elana considered what he’d said. It was true that she’d never seen anything overt on his part when he was with Lina.
“I just thought you were reserved,” she said, her hazel eyes challenging.
Darien grabbed her by the arms and pulled her close to him until their faces were touching. He kissed her hard and long with a depth and intensity that surprised both of them. “Was that reserved?” he asked, his sudden anger abated.
“No.” Elana stood staring at him, her whole body shaking.
He loosened his hold of her arms and stroked them gently where he had grabbed her. “How could you ever think I’d go out with someone like Lina?”
“What was I supposed to think?”
“That I have better taste than that. Elana – I told you that I loved you. You. And I meant it. I still mean it, but I don’t want to rush you, so I won’t bring it up again until you’re ready. Just tell me that you like me a little bit and that you’re willing to give me a chance – that’s all I ask.” He looked at her steadily.
Elana matched his gaze. She wanted to feel his lips on hers again, but this time softer and slower, and for ever so much longer. But she had to answer him first. Talking wasn’t as easy as letting the body take over. “If I said I like you a little bit I’d be lying.”
Darien’s expression changed. “The first time I kissed you, I thought you responded, but you said you didn’t. This time I <I>know </I>you responded.”
She placed her fingers on his lips. “Hush. Let me speak. I have a confession to make. My feelings have changed quite a bit since that night out by the greenhouse. You’ve done things and said things that have totally altered my way of thinking about you. Before I didn’t know you at all, but since then I’ve seen into your soul. I didn’t think I had any chance with you anymore, after the way I’d treated you – the things I’d said, what I’d thought. And it amazes me that after all that you still love me. I think . . . I think I’ve fallen in love with you.”
Elana could see the silver rays in Darien’s eyes again. The room was very warm and not warm enough. She brought herself closer to him as his hands slipped from her shoulders and around her back. Bergamot and ginger mingled. Their lips met again – tender, unresisting. Moonlight slipped through the window and gilded them with opalescent light.
The front door opened. Carl and Joy stopped in the doorway and backed out slowly, closing it gently behind them.
“There’s no way we’re interrupting that, now it’s finally happened,” Joy whispered as they tiptoed around to the back of the house.
Elana gazed about herself and struggled to remember what the greenhouse had looked like less than a year before. Torn plastic had flapped in the wind – there had been a gaping hole in the arch of the greenhouse wall. The smell of decaying vegetation had filled her nostrils. The only things lush and green were the weeds that had forced their way through almost everything and flourished in a wild tangle. That had been last September when she had arrived from her three thousand mile trip across the country to the dilapidated greenhouses and the new beginning of her life. Now it was July. Rain did not slash against mottled and torn plastic. The lush green around her was augmented with red and yellow and cerulean blue. The air was redolent with perfume and the humming of bees. The plastic on the sides of the greenhouse was neatly rolled up to allow a light breeze to flow through, but still it was warm and humid inside in the summer sun. It was no longer just Cody and herself against the world. She had Sam who had been her rock, Joy and Chandra who filled her home with friendship and laughter, and Darien who had taken her completely by surprise with his love. Darien who had taught her to trust, to whom she had opened her heart, who walked up behind her as she watered the final row of hanging baskets. He pulled her against him with one arm and kissed the back of her neck.
“I won’t feel safe until you put that hose down,” he whispered in her ear.
“With good reason,” she said, trying to squirm around as his arm clamped tighter.
“I have something for you I don’t think you want to get wet,” he said.
She turned the valve at the nozzle and put the hose down before he allowed her to slip around in the curve of his arm and face him. He stretched the hand that held the bag away from her.
“Not yet. Not here. Can you come with me to the river?”
She nodded. “I’m all done for today. I just have to tell . . .”
Running feet alerted them to Cody’s approach. He entered the doorway and rushed up the centre path, his eyes shining.
“Mom, mom! I found pumpkins.” He threw himself into her arms. “Little baby pumpkins in my very own garden. Already! Even Sam doesn’t have any yet.”
“That’s just great,” she said, rumpling his hair.
“I expect a pie from your pumpkins,” said Darien.
“I’ll make it for you myself,” said Cody. “Well, with mom’s help, anyway.”
“I’ll hold you to it, buster.” Darien took Cody by the arm and the three of them began to walk out of the greenhouse. “I’ve got some news that might interest you.”
“I’ve decided not to sell the yearling.”
“You’re not selling Legolas?” Cody’s eyes were shining.
“Nope. He’s smart and spunky but he’s gentle too. He’ll make a good horse for a boy. If you want to keep helping me to train him, I’d really like it. And then, when he’s ready, you could ride him for me in shows.”
“Me? Almost like he’s my horse?”
“Darien,” said Elana, looking at Cody’s excited face and not wanting to burst his bubble. “You can’t give Cody a horse. It’s too much.”
“I’m not,” he said. “He’ll just be my rider. I don’t always sell all the horses I raise.”
“But . . .”
“No buts, Elana. Cody’ll be doing me a favour. Really.”
“Can I mom?” Cody was almost exploding with excitement. “Please?”
“Yes honey, but remember, it’s a big responsibility, helping to train a horse. You do a good job for Darien.”
“I will,” said Cody, and then he turned to Darien. “Thank you, thank you, thank you! Can we go and see Legolas now? Can we?”
“Your mom and I are going for a walk to the river, but Justie’s at the barn. You could go with her, if that’s okay.” He looked to Elana for approval.
“Okay, as long as he’s not disrupting her work or anything.”
“She loves having him around,” said Darien. “And she’ll be sure to put him to work.”
Elana grinned. “Yeah, she’s a regular slave driver.”
They left Cody at the barn and continued on past the paddocks to the river trail.
“Thanks, Darien. This means so much to him. He’s been bugging me for the last two and a half months to buy that horse. You’ve made it too easy for me, doing it this way.”
Darien put his arm around her shoulders. “I knew you’d think something was fishy if I offered to sell him to you for ten bucks, so I thought up a better plan.”
“And saved me a lot of money in feed and board,” said Elana. “But what happens if they get too attached to each other? Cody has to always remember that Legolas is yours and not his.”
“I don’t think that’ll be an issue.”
Elana looked at him questioningly, but Darien just smiled. They didn’t say much the rest of the way to the river. The afternoon sun was warm on their backs and the shade, when they reached the trees, was welcoming and cool. They took off their shoes and socks at the edge of the water and then Darien led Elana out to a large, flat boulder in midstream. They sat facing each other, legs crossed, knees touching. Darien reached out a hand, placed his fingers on Elana’s eyelids, and brought them down to close.
“There’s something I need to tell you,” he said as he took an object out of the bag he’d brought and placed it in her hands. “Open your eyes.”
Elana looked down at the book she held. Reverently ran her fingers over the dark green word that crossed the cover and the brightly coloured bird that rose up from a tapestry background of intersecting branches and leaves. Phoenix. “You’ve written a new book!”
“I was about to tell you that I write. How did you know about my books – that FD Austen is me? Even Justie doesn’t . . .”
“Sam told me about your books. He gave me one to read a long time ago, but I didn’t read it until after . . . after I found out I was all wrong about you. Since then I’ve read everything you’ve written, Darien.”
“Sam? How did he know I’d written them?”
“He knows your name. Freedom Darien Austen Stewart. He used to be a very close friend of your parents – he’s your godfather.”
“My godfather? Why did he never tell me?”
“I told him he should, but he said that you wouldn’t want to know about an old hippie like him. You know, he was living there, looking after that property so that he could be close to you – make sure that you were alright.”
“I’m glad you told me, Elana.” Darien idly traced a design upon the warm stone beside him with his index finger. “I admit that at first I just thought of him like that – as an old hippie – but I’ve got to know him in the past few months too, and I have a lot of respect for him. The way he works so hard. The way he looks after you. The way he’s like a grandpa to Cody.”
Elana smiled. “I’d never have made it without Sam.” She uncrossed her legs, placed her feet flat on the rock, and rested the book against her raised knees. She was about to open it when Darien reached out and stilled her hand.
“So,” said Darien, “why didn’t you tell me that you knew I was a writer?”
“I was waiting for you to tell me.” Elana looked down at the hand that held hers and then back up to Darien’s face. “Are there any more secrets we need to share before I open this book?”
Darien stroked the back of her hand with his thumb and smiled. “Do you have any?”
Elana pretended to think hard for a moment. “Nope.”
Darien put his legs on either side of hers and pulled himself closer. He reached his other hand up and tucked her hair behind her ear. “I’ve got one,” he whispered.
Elana regarded him expectantly.
He ran his finger down the curve of her jaw, from ear to chin. “I gave you a Christmas present.”
“The raku bowl.”
“Yes. I bought it for myself during the week at the craft fair, but when I saw you that day when I came with Carl to help load up Joy’s stuff, I overheard you talking about the bowl you had wanted to buy. Dark green glaze with pink crackling – flashes of gold and charcoal – the feel of it – the balance – the serenity. I knew it was the same bowl. I wondered whose bowl it really was, mine or yours, and where it really belonged, and by Christmas I knew I had to give it to you. I wasn’t ready to admit to myself why, and I wasn’t ready to open myself to you by giving it outright, so I took the easy way out and left it on your doorstep.”
“It’s a good thing you did,” said Elana as she leaned forward and pulled him closer to her so she could kiss his lips. “I wouldn’t have kept it if I’d known you’d given it to me. And I love that bowl.”
“And I love you,” he said, returning her kiss. “Where did you think it had come from?”
“Even though they denied it, I thought Joy and Carl had bought it for me. What else could I think?”
“I was such a coward. The main reason I didn’t give it to you directly was that I was afraid of Justie’s teasing – she didn’t believe me when I said I was indifferent to you. But I had already been far from indifferent to you for a long time. And foolishly fighting it. I think it’s time to open the book now. Turn to the dedication page.”
Elana opened the book in the warm little cave made by their touching bodies. The pages were crisp, creamy vellum. She turned one, two, three, and then there it was.
I could not extricate you from this book
Nor my mind, nor my heart, nor my soul
I wouldn’t want it any other way
She stared at the words for some time and then looked up at him, her eyes bright with tears.
“You are the book,” he whispered. “Every image, every thought, every word is because of you.”
“I don’t know what to say,” she finally said. “It’s overwhelming. You have no idea what your writing does to me. I fell in love with you while reading it. Your phrasing, the way you use words, the emotions you evoke – I felt I could see into your soul. And now . . .”
He stopped her words with a kiss. It was some time before either of them spoke again.
“Elana, I want to join my life with yours. To live with you, to be your husband, to be Cody’s dad. For always. Forever. I can’t imagine living any other way.”
Elana touched his face and looked into his eyes. Words evaded her as she leaned forward and kissed the tip of his nose, his eyebrows, the arch of his cheek. She had never known love could be so liberating. So rewarding. She laughed and threw her arms around him; twined her legs about his waist. The book fell onto the rock and they almost toppled into the water themselves as they grabbed for it.
“You’ve been wanting to get me wet all day, haven’t you?” Darien said.
“Yes.” Making sure the book was safely on the centre of the rock, Elana rolled him off, down into the river with her. The water was icy at first, but they lay on the gravel bed and held onto each other as it flowed around them. “I want to spend my life with you forever, just like this.” She tasted the river water on his lips.
“I think we’d get hypothermia after a few hours.”
“You know what I mean.”
“I want you to say it.”
“You make me happier than I ever thought possible, you wet, wonderful man, you.” She kissed him again. Softly. Slowly. Their heads went under water and they both came up spluttering. Elana brushed his hair back from his face and looked at him tenderly. “I love you, Darien Stewart. I think you are going to make Cody the best dad ever. Now, let’s get out of this river – it’s cold.”
He lifted her out and carried her to the bank. “What about the book? We’re both soaked.”
Elana looked around. “Luckily the bag is still on the rock. I think if you dry your hands on our socks and then put the book in the bag, it’ll survive.”
“Me?” he said. “Who got us wet?” But he dried his hands on the tops of the socks, then rolled them up in a ball and threw them at her before going back into the river and rescuing her book.
They slipped their wet feet into their shoes and walked arm in arm up along the path.
“How are we going to explain our wet clothes to Cody?” asked Elana.
“We’ll just have to tell him the truth,” Darien said. “I don’t think he’ll be surprised.”
Birds sang in the trees. Daisies, foxgloves, and a few belated lupines swayed in the long summer grass. The late afternoon sun drenched everything in honey. Ahead were paddocks and barns, house and gardens; behind the river washed over pebbles and around boulders. Lanea watched them walk up the slope and then turned down the river path and followed it as it wound deeper and deeper, away from laughing voices, verdant fields and sun-sparkled water into a world of filtered shadow, illusive memories and intangible dreams.
Sam pulled off his gardening gloves and slid his feet out of his boots before going into the back door of the house which had been his home since Elana had married Darien two years before. He was still getting used to having so much space all to himself after having lived in the back shed for so many years. Most of Elana’s furniture had been left for his use, all except the small rug, the oak bookcase, and the bedroom suite.
In the greenhouses he was still growing bedding plants and hanging baskets but he had added herbs and vegetable plants to his inventory. Elana had not completely abandoned the nursery; she used one of the greenhouses for growing an assortment of more rarely propagated and exotic perennials. Her time there was quite limited now, however.
Sam put on the kettle and smiled as he thought contentedly about how things had developed since the day he had met Elana and Cody in his pumpkin patch.
Elana sat back in bed, her thoughts echoing those of Sam. She turned to look at the headboard, running her hand over the smooth honey-coloured oak. Darien had refinished the furniture, lovingly sanding and oiling it. He had searched second hand shops and antique auctions to match the drawer pulls and had meticulously carved a new wing for the bird and attached it. The duvet cover and pillow shams were a warm gold, green, and cinnamon. Evening sun streamed through the low dormer windows. On a gate-legged table in front of one window was the raku bowl, glowing in the soft light. Elana smiled and looked towards the door in anticipation as she heard footsteps in the hallway.
“Here she is, all changed and washed and ready to be fed,” said Darien, holding a plump and squirming child out to Elana.
“Ma!” the little one gurgled, reaching towards her mother.
“Come here my sweet honey,” she said, and cuddled the baby in her arms as she pulled up her top. “Talia Rose you are such a glutton!”
Darien settled himself on the bed beside Elana and stroked Talia’s cheek as she nursed. “She’s nine months old and I’m still amazed ever time I look at her,” he said.
Elana leaned over and kissed his cheek. “Me too . . . and I’m amazed every time I look at you. Is Cody home yet?”
“No,” Darien grinned. “Whenever Justie picks him up from guitar lessons they’re always a little late.”
“I think that has something to do with a certain Liam Andrews.”
“From the way she blushes ever time I tease her about it, I’d say he’s the reason.”
“He’s so quiet and shy – someone needs to give those two a shove.”
“I’ll tell you what – we’ll have him over for dinner and then take them for a walk to the river. I expect you to push them both in – it’s your forte.”
Elana stuck her tongue out at him. “You know you like it.”
That earned Elana a kiss that set Talia protesting when she got a little squished. Darien made it up to her by helping her latch on again and then lightly kissing her soft little cheek.
“What should I make for the potluck Joy’s having for Chandra and Colin?” asked Elana, changing the subject.
“Well, they’re going to Kathmandu – how about tzatziki made with yak’s milk and goat kebabs?”
“And I suppose I’ll find all those ingredients at Superstore?”
“You could milk the yak that Carl bought Joy for the wool.”
“It’s an alpaca, silly. I’ll just make lamb souvlaki, but I do expect you to milk that alpaca for the tzatziki.”
“I’m not going within an inch of it – it spits.”
They heard a door slam downstairs and running feet. A moment later Cody burst into the room, his hands carefully held behind his back. “I thought I’d find you guys in here. She’s not asleep yet, is she? We stopped by Joy’s craft store on the way home.”
Elana grinned. “Oh, we thought you were late because Justie was talking with Liam.”
“No, he came with us.” Cody couldn’t contain himself any longer. He pulled his arms from behind his back and held a blanket out. “Joy made this for Talia – isn’t it cool?”
“It’s lovely,” said Elana, fingering the soft wool. “She’s just dropped off, but you can cover her with it when I put her in her crib.”
Darien sat back and watched as Elana and Cody went to the corner of the room where the crib stood and Elana gently placed the sleeping baby on her mattress. Cody tucked the blanket around Talia with care and then leaned over and kissed her forehead. ‘This is what it’s all about,’ Darien thought, and he felt his heart well up with happiness as he gazed at the three people he loved the most.
2004 Copyright held by author