Wild Orchids Part 28

I spent three seconds thinking about defending myself and starting a fight with him, but, instead, I stretched out my hand. Taking it as though he were a toddler, he followed me outside.

I hadn't been wrong in what I thought I saw. Miss Essie Lee was standing on a bench, Tessa was handing her origami creatures, and the thin woman was hanging them in the high branches. When Miss Essie Lee started to get down, Toodles took her by her narrow waist and swung her down. As she put her hands on his shoulders, she giggled like a teenager.

"Your father's in love," I said, but Ford was staring just as I had been a few moments earlier, so he couldn't make a sound.

It was sometime later when I finally saw Miss Essie Lee alone. By that time the party was in full swing and very loud. Earlier in the week, Ford and n.o.ble had gone shopping and bought some serious speakers. The good news was that if the speakers ever broke, we could rent them out as condos.

Finally, there came a moment when I saw Miss Essie Lee standing by the fence by herself, drink in hand. As always, she was wearing one of her antique blouses, but her hair had come down a bit from its usual tight style, so she looked kind of good. I nearly ran over to her before Toodles returned and I lost my chance.

It took me a moment to get myself under control enough not to stare at her. Of course I wanted to know if she was a murderer, but that happened long ago, and right now there was something more urgent that needed attention. "So what do you think of Ford's father?" I yelled over the music.

"He is as pure as a sonnet," she said, her voice carrying better than mine.

"Did you know that he doesn't know how to read? Isn't that refreshing?"

That set me back a bit. "Yeah, well, I guess it is," I managed to say.

"You don't know how tired I get of literacy. Everyone talks to me about nothing but what's inside books."

"But I thought-"

"That because I'm a librarian that I want my entire life to be about books?

Not quite. We all want a life."

Suddenly I thought of how Russell had lied to me about himself, or at least omitted some basic facts. Miss Essie Lee might possibly have a dubious past, but I still didn't want her, or any woman, to get hurt. "Did you know that Mr. Newcombe has... Well, that he's..."

"Spent his entire life in prison?" Leaning toward me, she whispered loudly, "I find that fascinating, don't you?" The next second her face changed. She was a girl seeing her first boyfriend. "There he is," she said as she ran toward Toodles, leaving me to stare after her in shock.

It was about a half hour later that I saw Russell. I was closing the garden gate-why, I don't know because everyone within hearing distance, invited or not, and far more than my original twenty-eight, had shown up-when an arm reached out and grabbed me. As the arm spun me out of the garden and toward the alley, I let out a little scream, but it was stopped by a man's lips on mine.

It took me a few seconds to realize that it was Russell, but his body next to mine made me forget that I'd decided I no longer found him attractive.

Plus, I'd had three of some fruity drink that Ford had been making in a blender and telling me that he'd fortified with six essential vitamins.

Still, I could pretend to be furious. I pulled my mouth away from Russell's and said petulantly, "You didn't call me.

Still holding me, he nuzzled my neck. How did we go from two encounters to this? I wondered, but I didn't push my body away from his- his hard, lean, muscular body. d.a.m.n Ford and his vitamin drink. Was the thing half rum or two-thirds?

"I'm sorry, Jackie," Russell said in that divine voice of his. "I couldn't call.

My father's been ill, but he's all right now. We thought it was a heart attack, so I went running back to Raleigh, but it was just anxiety. I was angry about the whole thing, but relieved. Can you forgive me?"

"They have telephones in Raleigh," I said even more petulantly. Are there degrees of petulance? Could I go from medium to high? "You don't teach at the University of North Carolina," I shot at him.

Smiling, Russell pulled me closer. "Not anymore. Not as of this spring. I quit because I'm working on a personal project and because I've had two other job offers."

He started to kiss my neck again, but I turned my head away. His arms were around my lower back, my hips against his. "Why didn't you tell me that?" I asked.

When Russell dropped his arms from around me, I wanted to take the question back. I wanted to be the injured party so he'd coax me into forgiving him. As he looked up at the stars, some wonderful person turned the music down. "I can't figure out what you've done to me," he said softly.

"I've thought of nothing but you since I met you."

I tried to make my heart stop racing, but I couldn't. He was describing the way I felt about him.

Turning, he looked at me. "Promise you won't laugh, but for three days after I met you, I was like a cartoon character. I was walking into walls."

I tried to focus my rum-laden mind so I didn't blurt out that that's just how I'd reacted to meeting him, too.

"I'm just a boring college teacher who took some time off to do some research, but I can't think about my work because I keep seeing your face."

Reaching out, he ran the back of his fingers along my cheek, and I could feel his touch all the way to my toes. "I don't usually reveal things about myself to people but to you... I told you more in an hour than I told the woman I almost married over the course of three years."

I forgave him. d.a.m.n, d.a.m.n, and double d.a.m.n, but I forgave him.

Maybe he was lying. Maybe he never had been a teacher at UNC, but then maybe he had secrets he couldn't tell anyone. And didn't we all have secrets? Wasn't I sitting on some pretty big ones myself?

I slipped my arm into his. "Come to the party and meet everyone. Ford's father and his cousin are here, and I want to show you some photos I took."

Backing away, Russell glanced at the fence as though he were afraid of something. "They wouldn't like for me to show up in there," he said.

Why?! I wanted to scream, but my head was so fuzzy that it was difficult to think. I took a deep breath. "I told Ford about you." I stiffened my shoulders as I prepared for his anger. After all, I'd promised him I wouldn't.

But Russell didn't get angry. Instead, he gave a little one-sided grin and said, "What did he say?"

"He was jealous."

Russell laughed and the sound made me feel warm all over. "Does he have reason to be?"

He was reaching for me again, but I stepped back. "Ford has doubts that the whole town would dislike you merely because you gave Dessie Mason a bad review."

Russell smiled, his eyes bright even in the dark. "I've been caught." He looked at me for a moment, as though trying to decide whether or not to tell me the truth. "The research project I'm working on?"

"Yes," I said, and, somehow, I knew what he was going to say.

And Russell could see that I knew. Shrugging, he turned away. "Since I was in my twenties, I've been angry about what happened with my mother.

Can you understand that?"

Oh, yeah, I thought, and nodded.

"All I've wanted to know is what happened. What really and truly happened. Does that make sense?"

So many words crowded my brain that none of them would come out, so again I nodded.

"I've asked too many questions in this town. People don't want to see me."

I didn't say so, but Ford and I had been in the same situation. "Miss Essie Lee," I said.

"She's just one of them."

"One of the main ones since she helped put rocks on that poor woman."

Russell looked startled. "No, her sister did that."

"But you said-"

Russell's eyes flashed in a way that made me take a step back. "No, her sister did that. You must have misheard me."

I put my hand on the gate latch. He was beginning to frighten me.

"I'm sorry," Russell said as he put his hand over his face.

Please don't weep, I thought. There was enough crying around me as it was. But when Russell looked up, the anger was gone.

"I really am sorry. I'm so tired that I'm short tempered. I may have said that Miss Essie Lee was directly involved because..."

I stood there in silence, waiting for him to continue.

When Russell looked at me, his eyes were those of someone who had known great pain. "Can I trust you? I mean really, really trust you? I need someone to confide in."

Part of me wanted to throw open the gate and run back inside. I knew that he wanted to tell me something about the crushing, but I didn't want to hear it. I agreed with Ford that we should stop working on the crushing story because it looked as though I was involved. I did not, under any circ.u.mstances, want to hear or see something that would make me remember what I might have seen.

But there was that age-old man-woman thing, so I heard myself whisper, "Yes, you can trust me."

"I think my father may have... have taken what happened into his own hands. I think he may have-" Russell took a breath. "I think my father may have killed some or all of those people who put stones on that woman."

It was good that Russell's pain was getting through to me, or I would have been tempted to tell him that Ford had found out about the deaths.

But I said nothing. I really and truly didn't want to become any more deeply involved in this.

I guess Russell could see that my silence meant something. Reaching out, he took my hand in his. "I've told you so much. You..." He paused for a moment while caressing my fingers. "May I see you again? This week sometime?"

I nodded. He and I needed to talk. With no lies and no secrets-if that was possible, that is.

"Come Wednesday," I said. "At two. And, Russell, if you're too busy to show up, don't ever contact me again. Got it?" Amazing at how good that felt!

He nodded in understanding, his eyes twinkling. Then, smiling, he leaned over, kissed me on the neck, and slipped away into the darkness.

I went back into the garden and there was Ford, a CD in his hand, and he was looking at me curiously. "You okay?"

"Sure," I said, and tried to change my face from serious to party. "If your father marries Miss Essie Lee, does that mean you'll have to call her Mom?

Will you have to speak at the garden club once a month?" I widened my eyes. " Will she move in with you?"

When Ford gave a groan of true fear, I went away smiling.

After that, I danced and had a good time. But in the back of my mind I was thinking about Russell. And Ford. At times what the two men had told me seemed contradictory, but Russell always seemed to have a glib explanation.

You know what was really in my mind? When he was a child, Russell had been bundled away in the night, and now he suspected that his father had murdered the people who'd crushed that woman. What kept going around my head, no matter how loud the music or how frantically I danced, was that maybe my dad had helped Russell's dad kill those people and that's the real reason my father and I had spent our lives running.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN.

Ford

On Sunday we all did some heavy-duty sleeping. Except for Jackie, of course. She was up and about before the sun was, and doing whatever she did all day. I'd roll over in bed, hear her outside, then inside, then out again.

At one point, the words "cleaning up" came to me, and just the thought of expending that much energy made me even sleepier.

Somewhere around noon I got up, pulled on my old gray sweat pants and a T-shirt, and went downstairs to see if n.o.ble had baked anything. I was hungry enough to eat all twenty-eight portions.

The kitchen was impressively spic and span, and although there weren't any home baked goods, there was a bag full of bagels. Since there were no doughnuts, I knew Jackie had been the one to go to the store. I ate one or two bagels before I went outside where I could hear voices.

Outside was as clean as in, and sitting in the shade were n.o.ble, Tessa, and my father. Jackie was nowhere to be seen. On the little round table in front of them were three white bakery boxes full of doughnuts and four big cartons of orange juice. Ah, I thought, a real Newcombe breakfast. I took a seat and grabbed a jelly, surprised n.o.ble hadn't eaten all of them, as jelly was his favorite.

"Right over there," n.o.ble said, continuing what he'd been saying and pretending he hadn't seen me. I doubt if "good morning" had ever crossed a Newcombe's lips.

Of course I knew that his partial sentence was meant to intrigue me, but I'd die before I'd ask him what he'd been saying.

But Tessa wasn't a Newcombe. She was sitting on Toodles's knee, leaning back against his chest, and licking the powdered sugar off a cake doughnut -my least favorite kind. "n.o.ble's going to open a bakery with my mom."

"Yeah?" I couldn't help saying as I looked at his profile. There was an edge of pink along his jaw, so I knew he was excited about this, but of course he was pretending to be cool.

Shrugging like it was nothing, n.o.ble said, "Maybe. It's somethin' to think about. Tessa's mother-what was her name?"

"Persephone," I said instantly.

n.o.ble shot me a look that made me smile. As I picked up the quart carton of OJ, I glanced about to see if Jackie was in view. Between Pat and Jackie, it had been years since I'd drunk out of a carton.

"Allie," n.o.ble said, "owns one of those Victorians across the street."

Since my office window looked toward those houses, I knew them well.

Actually, not too well because of course I spent most of my time working and not staring out the window. "The yellow one or the one with the tarp over the hole in the roof?"

"Guess," n.o.ble said, and I gave a snort. No guessing there.

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