Wild Orchids Part 19

"You aren't possibly hungry, are you? I brought too much food and either it gets eaten or I have to haul it back." He looked at me through long, spiky lashes. "It's heavy so you'd be helping me out if you shared it with me.

What could I do? Refuse to help him? Ha ha.

"Sure," I said, and the next minute he was standing before me and stretching. Oh, yeah, sure, I knew he was showing off his drop-dead gorgeous, hunky body, but well...

I made myself stop looking as he picked up the canvas bag and pulled out a red and white checked tablecloth. I knew that pattern was a little hokey but, still, it looked perfect spread on the dark green gra.s.s.

"Help me?" he asked as he sat on one side of the cloth.

In an embarra.s.singly short time I was sitting on the tablecloth, both of us facing the splendid view of the roses, and I was arranging the items he pulled out of the bag.

I must say that he'd been able to pack a great deal in that bag. There was a bottle of cold white wine and two crystal gla.s.ses-the kind that ping when you tap them-and plates from Villeroy and Boch. The food was wonderful: cheeses, ptes, olives, meats in little cold packs, three kinds of salad.

"This is like the loaves and fishes," I said.

He stopped unloading and looked at me, puzzled. "What do you mean?"

He hadn't spent a lot of time in church, I thought. I told him of Jesus feeding the mult.i.tudes with a few fish sandwiches.

The story seemed to amuse him and he smiled. "Nothing Biblical, just an experienced packer."

Had it been anyone else, I would have thought my joke had fallen flat, but his smile was so warm that I returned it. He poured us gla.s.ses of wine, broke bread from the loaf, and handed me a plate of cheese and olives. It was my absolute favorite kind of meal.

After we'd eaten some, I leaned back on one arm, sipped my delicious wine, and looked at the roses. "So tell me everything about yourself," I said.

When he laughed, the sound was as rich and creamy as the Brie. "I'd much rather that you tell me what all of Cole Creek is dying to know. What's going on between you and Ford Newcombe?"

Startled, I turned to look at him. "Why would anyone care to know that?"

"Same reason you want to know all about me."

"Touche," I said, smiling and beginning to relax. My physical attraction to him was so strong that I didn't trust myself to behave, but I was beginning to calm down enough to think and talk. "So who goes first?"

"How about scissors, paper, rock?" he said, and I laughed again. That had been the way my father and I often settled who was going to have to do the more onerous ch.o.r.es.

I won. "Who are you? Why weren't you at the Annual Cole Creek Tea and what happened to your house up there?" I squinted into the deep shade of the forest at the last question.

"Okay," he said, chewing, swallowing, dusting his hands off. Then he got up, bowed to me, and put his right index finger to his temple. I knew he was imitating Jack Haley, the tin man in The Wizard of Oz-one of my favorite movies.

"Russell Dunne," he said. "Thirty-four years old. a.s.sociate professor of art history at the University of North Carolina in Raleigh. I lived in Cole Creek until I was nine, and after we moved, we sometimes returned to visit relatives. My mother grew up in the house that used to be there, but it burned down about ten years ago. I was married but I'm a widower now, no children, no real attachments, actually. I wasn't at the party because I don't live here and am not considered part of the town." He looked at me, eyes laughing. "What else?"

"What's in the Billingham?"

His laughter turned to mock seriousness. "So now we get down to your real interest in me. And here I thought it was my charisma. Or at least the cheese."

"Nope," I said, glad to pretend that I wasn't already thinking about my bridesmaids. "What equipment is in there?"

Stepping over to the bench, he picked up the big bag, set it on the edge of the tablecloth and withdrew a camera I'd only seen in catalogs: a Nikon Dl-X.

"Digital?" I asked and I could hear the sneer in my voice. I like automatic focus on my cameras but that's as modern as I got. I hated zoom lenses as I didn't feel they gave me as clear a photo as a fixed lens. As for digital, that was for Mr. and Mrs. Homeowner. Even though I knew that his camera body, no lens, cost thousands wholesale, still, in my view, it wasn't a "real"

camera.

Turning the camera toward the sunlit roses, Russell fired off a couple of shots, then opened a door and removed a plastic card from the side. As I drank wine, he looked inside his bag and withdrew a little machine-two of them could have fit in a shoe box. At first I thought it was a portable DVD player and wondered what movie he was planning to show me. I hoped it wasn't too s.e.xy or I'd never be able to keep my hands off of him.

When he stuck the card in the machine, I paused, gla.s.s frozen to my lips, and I don't think I breathed until I saw a photograph come out. When he handed the photo to me, I set my gla.s.s down and marveled at a 4x6 photo of perfect color and clarity. I could see the thorns on the rose stems.

"Oh," was all I could say. "Oh."

"Of course you can put the photos on a computer and manipulate them, and there are much better printers than this gadget, but you get the idea."

Oh, yeah, I thought. I could see uses for this. A sort of New Age Polaroid.

"But I also use this," he said as he pulled a big Nikon F5 out of his bag.

Take my camera, add some features and a couple of pounds, and you have an F5.

I love a heavy camera. I really do. I said that to Jennifer once and she said, "Yeah, like a heavy man. "

Maybe it was as s.e.xual as she was implying, but there was something so fundamentally solid about a camera that weighed a lot that I could never get interested in the little ones.

I was impressed by what he'd shown me, but I didn't want to gush. "So what else do you have in there?"

Lifting the top flap, he peered inside. "A scanner, a 6 x 6. Couple of lights.

A backdrop or two. A motorcycle to get home on." When he looked back at me, we laughed together.

Maybe he'd been joking about the motorcycle, but as he sat down, he pulled out a palm size Nikon digital that I knew was new on the market and touted as tops.

"Last one, I promise," he said. "Go on, shoot."

But as I lifted the camera and pointed it toward him, he put his hands over his face. "Anything but me."

I aimed the camera at the roses. Had I been sitting there with Ford I would have clicked off a dozen photos of him, hands or not, but I didn't feel secure enough with this man to go against his wishes. Or maybe I was in that girl mode where I didn't want to displease him.

"Your turn to tell all," he said as I played with the camera, pushing its many b.u.t.tons to see what would happen.

"Absolutely nothing between Ford Newcombe and me," I said emphatically. "In fact, today he's out on a date with Cole Creek's most ill.u.s.trious citizen."

"Ah," Russell said, and his tone made me look at him. He had a striking profile, his features sharp and clear, as though they were carved from stone.

I bet Dessie would like to sculpt him, I thought, then it hit me what that tone in his voice was.

"Do you know Dessie?" I asked quietly "Oh, yes. But, then, don't all men know the Dessies of the world?"

Yeow! I thought. There was a condemnation if I ever heard one. I vowed then and there not to make a pa.s.s at beautiful Russell Dunne. I didn't ever want him, or any man, to refer to me like that. "She's... ?" I wasn't sure how to phrase my question. How much danger was my innocent, naive boss in?

When Russell turned to me, all humor was gone from his face. His dark eyes were intense-and I thought I might wilt under his gaze. "Look, do me a favor, will you?

"Anything," I said, and, unfortunately, I meant it.

"Don't mention meeting me to anyone in Cole Creek, especially not to Newcombe. He might tell Dessie and she'd tell others and it could get, well, unpleasant. I'm not welcome in Cole Creek."

"Why ever not?" I asked, aghast. A man with his manners and elegance not welcome? This man made James Bond seem like a redneck.

Russell smiled at me in a way that made me want to lie down on my back and open my arms to him.

"You're good for my ego, Miss Maxwell."

"Jackie," I said, trying to stay upright. I made myself look back at the camera. "Okay, I'll keep your secrets but I need to know all of them." I was trying to be light-hearted, sophisticated even. I fiddled with the zoom lens, making it go in and out, then flipped the switch to screen view and looked at the few photos he'd taken. All landscapes, all perfect.

After a while he looked back at the roses and I relaxed.

"I wrote a bad review of one of Dessie's shows," he said. "I earn a little money on the side from writing reviews, and I wrote an honest opinion, but no one in Cole Creek has ever forgiven me."

I didn't do a little dance of joy, but I wanted to. It was, of course, downright mean-spirited of me to want Dessie to get a bad review, but still...

"That's it? The town dislikes you because you gave a bad review to one of its citizens?" I asked, looking up at him.

He gave me a little one-sided smile that nearly made my socks curl off my feet. If I were in a Disney film, bluebirds would have flown down and plucked at my silk gown.

"That and the fact that I'm an outsider who knows they crushed a woman to death," he said.

I nearly dropped the camera. If I'd fallen off a cliff I probably would have held whatever camera I had protectively to me, but what Russell said nearly made me drop that beautiful instrument.

"Shocked?" he asked, looking at me hard, but all I could do was nod.

"Shocked at what I said or shocked that I know?"

"Know," I said, and my voice was so hoa.r.s.e I had to clear it.

He seemed to study me for a moment before he finally looked away. "Let me guess. Newcombe got wind of the story somehow, but when he asked questions, no one in Cole Creek knew anything about it."

I was ready to run away with this man, certainly to have a mad affair with him, but I wasn't ready to reveal what I'd found out since I'd arrived in this town. If I did that, I might slip and start telling him about my visions and that I remembered too many things. I decided to say as little as possible about what I knew.

"Exactly," I said. "Miss Essie Lee."

Russell smiled. "Ah, yes. The inimitable Miss Essie Lee. She was there, you know. She heaped stones on that poor woman."

I tried to stay calm. I'd read newspaper accounts of horrible things happening, hadn't I? But my stomach lurched at the thought of having been near someone who had done such a vile thing. "Was anyone prosecuted?" I managed to ask.

"No. Everything was hushed up."

I asked the question that Ford loved so much: "Why? Why would they do such a thing?"

Russell shrugged. "Jealousy would be my guess. Amarisa was loved by many people-and hated by a few."

"Amarisa?" I asked.

"The woman who was crushed. I met her when I was just a kid and I thought she was very nice. She... Are you sure you want to hear this?"

"Yes," I said. I set down the camera, drew my knees to my chest, and prepared to listen.

"Amarisa's brother, Reece Landreth, came to Cole Creek to run a small factory that made pottery. There's a lot of good clay around here and tourists were coming into the area so I guess the owners thought it would be a good business to get into. Reece opened the factory and hired some locals to work in it. The trouble came about because the prettiest girl in town was a Cole-"

"One of the founding families."

"Yes," Russell said. "Harriet Cole. She was young and beautiful, and Edward Belcher wanted to marry her. I remember him, too. He was a pompous bore. But Ms. Cole wanted to get out of Cole Creek, so she latched onto a man who was free to move around."

"The young and handsome potter."

He was silent for a moment. "Did I mention 'young and handsome'?"

"Must have heard it somewhere," I mumbled, cursing myself for giving too much away.

"Anyway," he said, "the problem was that after Harriet and Reece were married, he found out she was the town b.i.t.c.h, and she made his life h.e.l.l.

The irony was that she'd married him to get away from Cole Creek, but afterward she refused to leave her parents. By the time poor Reece found out his wife wouldn't leave the town, they had a daughter he was mad about, so he was trapped."

I didn't say anything. There was no reason whatever for me to believe that I was that daughter. Because my memories fit the story exactly wasn't enough evidence. "How did Reece's sister, Amarisa, fit into all this?" I asked.

"Her husband had died and left her well off, but she was alone, so when her brother asked her to move to Cole Creek, she gladly accepted. I remember hearing my mother-who despised Harriet Cole-say that Amarisa knew her brother was in trouble so his rich sister came to Cole Creek to bail him out. And it was true that by the time Amarisa got here, the pottery works had gone out of business and Reece was working for his father-in-law. My mother used to say that Reece worked fourteen hours a day, but old Abraham Cole stole all the profits."

"So Amarisa saved her brother," I said.

"Yes. Amarisa supported her brother and his little family." Pausing for a moment, Russell looked at me. "But the problem wasn't money. The problem was that everyone in town liked Amarisa. She was a lovely woman. She listened to people and, as a result, they told her their secrets."

When he didn't say any more, I looked at him. "Do you think she knew too many secrets?"

Russell began to clear away the food. "I don't know exactly what happened, but I do remember hearing my mother say that people in Cole Creek were jealous of Amarisa and it was causing problems."

"So they killed her out of jealousy," I said. Even if I didn't know the details, I could imagine the strong emotions.

"That's what my mother said," Russell said. "One night she was crying hysterically, 'They killed her! They killed her!' I was in bed pretending to be asleep but I heard it all. The next day my father put my mother and me in the car and we left our home, never to return."

I felt a tightening of my skin. I had a kinship with this man. I, too, had been bundled up and taken away from my home. Only I had also been taken away from my mother. Had she been Harriet Cole, the "town b.i.t.c.h"?

"But you came back to Cole Creek for visits."

"After my mother died when I was eleven," Russell said softly, "my dad and I returned here for visits. Not often and we never stayed in the old house. I don't know why. Maybe it had too many memories for him. I do know that my mother was never the same after that night when she came home crying." He was silent for a moment, and when he looked at me, his eyes were dark with pain. "I think that on that night they killed my mother as well as Amarisa. It just took my mother longer to die."

We sat in an intimate silence for a while, and I'm not sure what would have happened if it hadn't started raining. Never in my life had I met anyone who'd been through what I had. I'd been younger than Russell when I'd "lost" my mother, but we shared the trauma of having been whisked away from everything we knew.

But perhaps what really bound us together was that maybe we had been through the same tragedy. Maybe Amarisa's death-murder-had disrupted both our lives.

We sat on the tablecloth, watching the fading light on the roses, saying nothing, thinking our own thoughts, but when the first raindrops fell, we went into action. Protect the equipment! was an unspoken command. I grabbed my yellow poncho out of my bag as Russell grabbed a blue one out of his. We tossed the big ponchos over our heads and clutched our precious equipment to our bosoms.

When we looked out the head holes and saw each other, we began to laugh. The canvas bag containing what was left of the food (not much) was in the rain, and Russell had a jacket slung across the bench-but our camera equipment was safe and dry.

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