Penny loved Richard and she adored Rose, but her feelings toward pralines and cream were mediocre at best. She didn’t want to look like a giant pralines and cream ice cream cone on Rose’s wedding day. Dress sizes come and go but wedding pictures are forever. She frowned at her creamy white skin threatening to pop out of the too-tight and too-sheer beige bodice.
Rose smiled at her from across the room. Because of all the mirrors lining the walls, Rose came in quadruples. Rose’s dress reminded Penny of a lampshade. “Understated” was Rose’s buzzword for her simple, yet elegant, $150 thousand wedding. Penny’s brother couldn’t deny his finance even one little thing, not even a waffle cone dress for his sister. Sweat trickled down Penny’s face and along her neck—a slow but steady procession toward the silk’s ruination.
“It’s a smidge snug.” Rose folded her arms and frowned at Penny’s reflection.
“Harrumph,” the woman at Penny’s feet said. Because of all the pins in the seamstress’s mouth, it surprised Penny that the seamstress could say anything at all. Rose, a fashion designer, understood tailor-speak, but Penny didn’t. She guessed the woman said, “It doesn’t matter what she looks like, everyone will be looking at you and you’ll be drop dead gorgeous.”
“I know,” Rose sighed, “but we want her to look her best.”
“Harrumph,” the woman retorted, which Penny interpreted as “You can paint a barn in fancy colors, but it’s still a barn.”
“She’s worked so hard, it would be a shame not to show her off,” Rose said, smiling. She pinched the silk and tugged the waffle cone slightly lower, exposing a double helping of Penny’s cleavage.
Penny prayed that her pralines didn’t show. She looked up at the ceiling, willing angels to swoop down and save her modesty.
“Just a bit more va-va-voom.” Rose considered Penny’s spillover with a puckered brow.
Penny spent the next three hours at the gym. She wanted less va-va and definitely less voom. With grim determination stamped on her face, she raced on the treadmill. All around her Orange County toothpicks and giraffes pounded and grunted on the machines, and their sweaty stench filled her head. Music blared from the speakers and barbells clanged with thousands of repetitions, but Penny only heard her own internal mantra: Less va-va. Weigh less voom.
Drake Islington sat at a table in the back of the Fish House, a scowl creasing his forehead. Watching Blair and listening to her play increased his bad mood. His black thoughts sat on his shoulders like a cat. He hated cats.
Drake had heard her play countless times in their years together. He knew her and he thought that she knew him better than anyone before or since. And then the notebook. Two notebooks actually. The one she’d burned and the one she’d given him. As if the second could possibly make up for the first.
Melinda Marx pulled out a wooden chair at Drake’s table and settled into it, like she belonged there. She leaned forward, her elbows propped on the table and her face inches from Drake’s. Her perfume floated around him, like an invisible, dangerous toxin.
“This is nice,” she whispered. “I haven’t heard this band before. I wonder if they’re new.”
“Just the woman on the keyboard,” Drake said. “She’s new, but the rest of the Bewick's Wrens have been playing here on Friday nights for years.”
“Ah, she does look a little nervous.” Melinda laughed and Drake wondered what she found funny. He studied Blair. She looked stunning in her black dress, heels, and hose, but not nervous. Drake tried to read her the way he once thought that he could, but because he didn’t want to be caught staring, he forced himself to look away. He took in the wide-planked floors, the tall windows overlooking the Sound, and the night sky. Involuntarily his gaze flicked over to Alec Rawlings, his replacement.
Alec shared a table with a chunky woman who could pass as his sister. Drake tightened his grip on his glass, comparing himself to Alec and coming up short, even though he had at least a couple of inches on him. Everything about Alec raised Drake’s blood pressure. First, and most importantly, he was with Blair. Second, the man was a fly fishing guide and a New York Times best-selling author.
Drake had begun writing as soon as he could hold a pencil. He knew this because his mother had kept his preschool stories. He studied literature at the university and abroad, he had one PhD in the Romantic Age from Yale and was working on his second in American Lit. He taught at Western Washington University. Alec “Yokel” Rawlings wrote about fish.
And people bought his books.
The only people buying and reading Drake’s books were his students, because they failed his classes if they didn’t.
“You know why I asked you here tonight?” Melinda whispered.
The smell of her breath mint wafted his way. He shook his head, trying to clear it from all her odors.
“You don’t?” Melinda laughed again and leaned closer.
Oh, he had an idea. Occasionally ideas still visited him. It wasn’t very frequently, but every once in a while an idea would make a flittering appearance. But none of them had anything to do with Melinda. Most of his ideas were about Vikings—murdering and pillaging Vikings.
“My father?” Melinda said.
Drake inhaled, remembering Don Marx, the car guy. Melinda’s father owned a string of dealerships from Canada to Portland. He wanted a biography. A horrible realization, like monster trucks with revving engines, swept over Drake: Melinda wanted Drake to write the biography.
Melinda possessed a magnetic rather than classic beauty: tall, auburn hair, strong facial features. He stared at her while she spoke, trying not to be caught in her spell. His mouth hung open, and drool pooled on the other side of his teeth. He reminded himself to close his mouth and to swallow, but most of all to try to sound intelligent. His mind shot him commands, but he could only sit and worry about drool.
The music stopped. His eyes followed Blair. The woman who had typed all his work, filled in all his commas, had left him for a fisherman. Sure, a best-selling, writing fisherman, but still. Think of the stink and headless fish. When Blair and Rawlings moved out onto the patio and out of sight, Drake tried to focus on Melinda and her proposition.
“A surprise for my dad.” Melinda beamed.
“You want me to ghostwrite his autobiography?”
“Yes!” Melinda squeezed his arm. “Except it’s not an autobiography, it’s a biography. Otherwise it wouldn’t be a surprise.”
Drake swallowed, his eyes fastened on the French doors. Blair hadn’t returned yet, but he knew that she would. The band had a second set to play. Why did he come here to torture himself? She wasn’t coming back to him. He blew it. Poof. She was gone. He watched her slip behind the keyboard and adjust the stops. Rawlings bent to her, kissing her cheek.
“You’ll have to spend a lot of time with him.”
Who, Rawlings? Drake touched his temple with his fingertips, looked at Melinda, and tried to block out Blair and Rawlings. “Don’t you think he’ll get suspicious if I’m hanging around?”
“No. This is where things get brilliant.”
The only thing brilliant about Melinda was her teeth. Heck of a dental job.
“You can stay at the beach house right next door! It’s all arranged!”
Drake slowly shook his head. “You can’t want me to stay with you—”
“Oh, it’s not our beach house, it belongs to this darling old lady. But as luck would have it, she’s broken her foot! So she can’t come out this summer like she usually does, and Dad asked if I wanted to use it.”
“Drake!” He felt a light touch on his arm and heard a familiar voice.
Drake swiveled in his chair to face Andrea, the lead singer of the Bewick's Wren.
“Hey, Andrea,” Drake said. He stood to hug her, resisting the urge to ask her to provide an escape from Melinda. Any excuse would do. He could fake help her jumpstart her car. Rooting around under a greasy hood would be much better than moping in the Fish House.
“What are you doing here?” Andrea stepped away from him, tilted her head, and smiled. On anyone else the hippie/gypsy look would look dated and cliché, but Andrea, with her dark skin, wild hair, and macramé top, looked runway ready.
“Excellent music and fish on a stick? Where else would I be?” Drake hoped his smile looked more genuine than it felt stretching across his teeth.
She gave him a knowing look. “Did you know Blair was going to play?”
Pain flashed through him as he shook his head.
“I know,” Andrea nodded at Blair. “It’s shocking.”
“How did you convince her?”
“You heard about Emily?” Andrea laid her hand on his arm. “You must know about Charlotte’s murder?”
Melinda cleared her throat, a loud, masculine growl.
Drake placed his hand on Melinda’s shoulder. Her hair tangled in his fingers and he pulled away. “So sorry. Andrea, this is Melinda Marx.”
While the two women made their introductions, Drake watched Blair behind the keyboard. Her eyes searched the crowded room before she caught and held his gaze. He lifted his hand in a half wave and she responded with a come-hither motion, a small smile on her lips.
“I have to go,” Andrea said, and Drake realized Blair had been beckoning Andrea. He sat down hard, the wooden chair groaning beneath his weight.
“Murder?” Melinda raised her eyebrows.
“Charlotte Rhyme,” Drake said. The death of the local artist had made the national news and sent the prices of her paintings skyrocketing. Melinda would have had to have been hiding in a cave not to have heard.
“Oh yes,” Melinda said, sounding as if she wanted to be sympathetic, but wasn’t quite.
The music started. Andrea sang something about a lost coin into the microphone.
Something gained, something earned,
Something lost never to be returned.
The words twisted in Drake’s gut. His longing for Blair ate at him. It swelled until he thought it would swallow him completely. Melinda talked, her words competing with the music.
“I want to call it Geared.” Melinda paused. “What do you think?”
Drake tore his eyes off Blair and refocused on Melinda. “Geared? Like gearhead?” He wanted to add, “Are you serious?” But he thought better of it.
But when Melinda started talking numbers, Drake realized she was very serious. The salary was as serious as a heart attack—or at least the debt on his credit card. And with a free summer’s stay at a beach house, he could sublet his apartment for the extra cash, and have an entire summer free for writing.
“I can’t…” But he didn’t sound convincing, even to himself. He thought of his colleagues at the university and the words “sellout” repeatedly rang in his head, keeping time with Frank on the drums. Drake stopped thinking when the numbers he calculated grew so high they drowned out every thought.
Penny blinked. Her eyelashes brushed against rotting leaves and twigs. She tried to lift her head from the forest floor, prop herself onto her elbows, and look around for her horse, Gwendolyn. No, her horse was named Sir Gawain. Sir Gawain was a fine name for a horse. But she didn’t know how to ride a horse. Well, it was her dream, and if she wanted to ride, she would. Pain curled her into a tight ball. Her head throbbed. She touched it gingerly and found dead leaves stuck in her hair. When she pulled the leaves away, they were spotted with sticky blood.
This wouldn’t do. She didn’t want to be alone in a forest, bleeding, and in pain.
A dense, cottony fog hung in the trees and blocked the moonlight. Penny let out a long whistle for Gwendolyn—no, Sir Gawain—but the sound hurt her head and made her teeth ache. Only the night birds answered. Something skittered in a nearby thicket, and a twig snapped. Penny ignored the pain and listened. How long had she been on the ground?
Penny rolled over onto her back and watched the moonlight flicker through the boughs of a pine tree and wondered where she was and how she would get home without her horse. She reminded herself that she was at home and in her bed, but the dream continued.
Penny struggled to sit up and a skin-pricking sensation said she wasn’t alone. Animals. Possibly a red fox, a raccoon, skunk, or an opossum. Harmless night creatures. Panic caught in her throat, and she scooted on her bottom until she leaned against a pine tree. The fog swirled through the forest. Someone or something hid in the dark, watching. Using the tree for a brace, she stood and brushed off her plain, cotton shift. She found a hole straight up the middle of her shift, and her thigh had a corresponding scratch. She also had a bloody elbow, a throbbing head, and scraped hands.
Penny limped away from the tree, confused about her old-fashioned clothes. The leather sandals on her feet and the heavy cotton apron over her shift were from who knows what time or place. If she was going to dream, then why not dream of the Edwardian era? She loved the turn of the century fashion. But then she’d be wearing a tight corset and long skirts, and running would be hard enough with her wet noodle legs and unfocused eyes. Another twig broke. She swallowed and patted her apron pockets for some sort of weapon. Nothing. What did she expect? She found a stick and swung it as she limped in what she hoped was the direction of home. Her head thudded with every footfall, but she held it high, careful not to demonstrate weakness or fear. Another, closer twig snapped. She broke into jog, and heavy footsteps followed close behind.
Penny peered into the dark woods and watched the fog curl through the trees, but seeing nothing but the white mist, she ran, praying for a straight, unimpeded path. The ground became uneven and rocky, and she realized she was in a dry riverbed. Penny stumbled over the rocks, mindful of her ankles and the screaming cut on her thigh. Her pursuer was so close that she felt his breath on the back of her neck. Scrambling out of the riverbed and up the bank, she sprinted up the incline that led to a pasture. A shed’s roofline poked out of the fog. As she raced toward it, her foot caught on something and she pitched forward.
Hands caught her as she fell. She smelled beer and sweat as she was lifted off the ground and pressed against a broad chest. Penny kicked and cried out.
The man had a deep baritone laugh. “Aye me, miss, what fine morsel are ye?”
“I am not a morsel!” Penny threw her hands behind her in an attempt to pull his hair or gouge his eyes. “I am not food!”
He chuckled in response, kicked his knee between her flailing legs, and held her vice-like with one arm while his other hand ripped the front of her bodice and fumbled at the ties on her blouse. Penny screamed louder and bucked her head back, making contact with his chin.
Something flew past them and landed in the tall grass with a thud.
Penny’s captor released her and she landed on the ground, face first, and kissed dirt. Spitting, she lunged for her stick and scrambled to her feet. A rock torpedoed past her head and she woke with a jolt.
It was just a dream.
Penny sat up, and after a quick glance around her silent bedroom, she laid back against her pillow, breathing heavily, trying to slow her beating heart. Morning birds sang outside, a yellow sun hovered on the eastern horizon, and trees danced in a warm wind.
In the next room Phoebe stirred. She was probably packing. Footsteps padded across the hall and Penny propped herself on her elbow.
“Hey,” Phoebe said, standing in the doorway with a mug in her hand. “Who sent the flowers?”
“Flowers?” Penny sat up and brushed the curls from her eyes and face. Her dream came back to her and she dismissed the pinprick sensation of being watched. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Phoebe raised her eyebrows and took a long, slow sip from her mug. “Come on, don’t hold out on me. Who’s your admirer?”
Penny shook her head, trying to rid it from the cotton fuzz that had parked behind her eyes. “I don’t have admirers.”
“Well, you do now.”
Penny swung her feet from the bed and landed on the floor with a thud. “They must be for you.”
“Your name is on the card.” Phoebe glanced over shoulder into the next room. “When did they get here? You must have signed for them.”
Penny shuffled to her closet and scrounged through her laundry pile in search of a robe. Finding it beneath her workout clothes, she wrinkled her nose as she slipped into the soft and somewhat smelly flannel. She followed Phoebe into the tiny living room. The morning light shone through the window, landed on the dining room table, and sparkled on the cut crystal vase holding a giant bouquet of pink, yellow, and orange Gerbera daisies. Penny’s heart loved them—they were her favorite flowers—but she couldn’t fathom who sent them.
Phoebe handed her the card. “See, you have an admirer.” Her name and a heart were drawn in red.
“No,” Penny contended.
Phoebe scowled. “Maybe they’re from Richard.”
“My brother?” Penny’s voice rose to a squeak of disbelief.
“Oh yeah, you’re right.” Phoebe sat down at the table and stared at the flowers. “Well, if I didn’t sign for them, and you didn’t sign for them, how did they get in here?”
Penny sat down across from Phoebe and put her chin in her hand. Biting her lip, she considered the daisies. She wanted to love them because they were beautiful and happy, but they sort of scared her.
“Auntie Mae!” Penny slapped her palm down on the table.
A look of relief washed over Phoebe’s face. “Of course.”
“But what if they’re not from her?”
“They have to be, right? Do you know anyone else with a key?”
Phoebe shook her head. “We should change the locks anyway. It’s creepy to think of someone coming in while we sleep.”
The locksmith came an hour later.
All around him people shuffled luggage and umbrellas in the lobby of the Strand Hotel, but Drake sat on the silk sofa as if trapped on a deserted island with no one but this old woman of another time and place for company. Her eyes ran over him as if he was a piece of fruit and she was inspecting him for beestings and bruising. But her look wasn’t hostile, it was probing. He felt as if she could see inside of him.
She was just a little old lady, or more specifically, a little old lady with a broken foot, so his escape would be easy if he could muster the courage. Drake shifted in the Queen Anne chair and crossed his legs then his arms while Miss Mae peered at him from the other side of the coffee table. The conversation about her beach house had started sane enough, but then it was as if a light bulb of an idea blinked inside her head. For a moment Drake had worried that the old thing had suffered a stroke. And since that moment of mouth-gaping followed by an evil grin, things had gone from strange to bizarre. Drake sighed and wondered what Miss Mae would do if he just pocketed the keys and walked away.
“So, you’ve never been married?” She fingered her pearl necklace while studying him.
“No,” he lied, hating himself for it. But really, who could call a three-week fling a marriage? The state of New York, but no one else in a sane state of mind.
“No children?” she asked.
“Or pets,” Drake offered.
“I like pets.” Her tone said Drake had given the wrong answer.
“I’m fastidiously clean,” Drake said, hoping to recoup from the no pets faux pas.
Miss Mae frowned and settled into her chair. “Well, I guess that might work.” She considered him through slanted eyes, making Drake feel like a side of beef. “And you look like you could use more than one good meal.”
A skinny side of beef.
Drake couldn’t imagine what this was all about. He’d already signed the rental agreement. All he needed was the keys and address.
“Let me tell you a story,” she said. “A priest and a physics professor were arguing Darwinism verses creationism. The professor says, ‘Our ancestors crawled from the sea, starting as embryos who progressed to amphibians and to primates.’
‘I think not,’ the priest says.” She leaned back in her chair, her steady gaze on his face and delivered the punch line, “And, poof! The priest disappeared.”
It took only a second, but then Drake barked out a laugh. He couldn’t help it. The old thing knew Descartes, I think therefore I am…or not.
Miss Mae smiled, obviously pleased.
Finally, he’d answered a question—maybe the most important one—correctly.
Bending over, she brought her velvet purse to the table and pulled out a set of keys. “Here you are, my dear. I hope you have a lovely summer.”
“Thank you,” Drake said. “And I hope you enjoy your cruise.”
“I plan to.” Her eyes twinkled, as if she had another joke to share. “Let me give you my number, just in case anything goes awry. And if you don’t mind, I’d like yours as well.”
“Auntie Mae,” Penny sighed into the phone. “Remember, I told you, I work at home now. It’s okay. Don’t apologize. No, it’s not like I have a deadline, it’s just…people will get bored if I don’t write.” Trying to explain blogging to her great-aunt was like teaching algebra to a chicken.
Her aunt clucked, trying to sound sympathetic, but coming across as confused. Her clucking carried a bunch of questions that Penny had stopped trying to answer years ago. Why write a whatchamacallit at all? Why not find and marry a nice boy and have dozens of babies?
Penny blew out a sigh. “And I’m afraid they’re already getting bored.” She added silently, “I know I am.” Her gaze settled on the rows of cookbooks lining the book shelves and the sturdy pans hanging on the rack above the stove top.
Penny’s blog had gained a following as she had lost weight—her readers growing in almost direct proportion to her weight-loss. Once she’d even made a graph to prove the phenomenon, and the difference between the two grew with every pound Penny lost. “I’ve hit a plateau, and I’m worried my readers will get tired. I’ll lose advertising.”
Auntie Mae grunted her disinterest then rallied, as if trying to muster support. “Are you still writing that cookbook?”
“Of course,” Penny conceded, hopeful that the cookbook would boost her readership. The blog’s success was like weight loss—a few brownies could spoil the dream. Brownies had that power. They could destroy everything. And now that Penny had so closely tied her weight to her career, she had to be hypersensitive to brownies. And all carbs, for that manner. And cruising? Completely out of the question.
Penny scrolled through countless recipes, only half listening to her aunt’s pre-cruise prattle. Once a Paris-trained sous-chef, Penny no longer spent a chunk of her day cooking; she now spent most of her time cataloging, photographing, and creating recipes.
“Do you want its number?” her aunt asked.
Penny reeled her attention back to her aunt. Another blind date? Although Penny thought of the guys her aunt sent her way in the most objectionable way, her aunt had never before referred to the “gentlemen” as “its.”
“It has a hot pink case and it chirps when it rings,” her aunt continued.
So, not a blind date. What else has a number? Calories? Realization hit. “You got a cell phone?” Penny’s voice squeaked.
“Yes. Now that Richard and Rose are moving to New York, he thought this would be a good idea, and he bought it for me.”
Richard, suffering from guilt and separation anxiety, had done his best to convince his aunt and his sister to follow him to New York, but both refused leave Laguna Beach.
“He was very upset when you broke your foot,” Penny said.
“Goodness. As if that was anyone’s fault but my own.”
“Auntie, you shouldn’t be pruning trees.”
“You have to prune, or else all the fruit branches will grow straight for the sky.”
“But you don’t have to prune. I can do it or you can hire someone.” At seventy-one, Auntie Mae was certainly too old to be climbing trees. “You could have laid in your yard for days until someone found you. If not for Mr. Gerald—”
“If you’re going to lecture me,” Aunt Mae cut in, “I’m going to hang up. I told you I’m fine.”
“No, you’re not. You’re broken.”
“It’s just my foot. Fortunately, I’ll have all those days at sea to heal on my transatlantic cruise.” She giggled. “And eat. Richard should have at least waited until after my cruise to give me the phone. Although, the texting is very, very fun.” Aunt Mae brought the conversation back to where it had started. “Are you sure you won’t be terribly lonely at the beach house by yourself?”
Penny put her chin in her hand and fought back memories of past summers. She loved it, of course, but it had been several years since she’d last gone. Sandy toes, crashing waves, bonfires at dusk, gulls crying, sea glass, but without Aunt Mae or Richard and Rose it would be lonely. But she had the deadline for her cookbook looming like a humongous frozen turkey that refused to thaw, and getting away from her day-to-day life would help her focus. “It’s the perfect solution.”
“Are you sure?”
“Well make sure to bring a few nice dresses.”
“I’m just thinking you might not be as lonely as you think.”
Penny frowned at the computer screen at the thought of dresses, but then noticed the time. “I have to go, Auntie. I’m meeting Kayla for lunch.”
Penny said her goodbyes and grabbed an apple on her way to the bathroom. She peeled off her clothes and dropped them on the floor. She could do that now that Phoebe had left for her world tour. Living alone had its perks, like leaving her things out whenever and where ever, but it also had its drawbacks. Like loneliness. Penny told herself that the beach house couldn’t possibly be any lonelier than her apartment.
She usually loved talking to her aunt, and she knew she’d miss her brother and Rose when they moved to New York, but for the moment she enjoyed her newfound freedom. Sure, the apartment looked and felt a little empty without Phoebe and all her jazz, but Penny liked putting something down and knowing it would be there when she wanted it. She liked leaving her towels on the floor. She liked singing out loud, and she belted out the chorus to “Viva la Vida” on her way to the shower.
But the song caught in her throat in the hall. Steam from the shower that she hadn’t turned on seeped under the door. Reaching out with shaking fingers, she pushed the door and it swung open silently. The warm, moist air rolled out and hit her like a punch to the gut. She’d been sitting only a few feet away at the kitchen table. She hadn’t heard the water running, but she hadn’t been listening for it either—she’d been listening to her aunt and Coldplay. Everything was exactly where and as she’d left it…except for a heart drawn on the foggy mirror.
Penny stared at her own pale reflection as water dripped down the glass like tears.