1. Past (2002-2007)
When I was fifteen I left the smoky, wide-open skies of Dallas, Texas, for the rain and the thick, grey clouds of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. It was less than a year after the twin towers in New York had fallen, and I’d spent that year living with my father before deciding, finally, to return home to live with my mother in a little apartment block somewhere on the city’s east side.
That year, I kept mostly to myself, managing a tenth grade quick and painless, turning sixteen along the way. Then, sometime through the eleventh grade I fell in love with my thirty-something Spanish teacher, Karen Thoreson, through the twelfth grade starting an affair with her. It was an involuntary act for both of us, to fall in love, and it scared me more than I’ve ever been scared of anything else. But even after all that’s happened, after all the suffering it’s caused and all the lives it’s destroyed, I still don’t know if I can say I’d have given up what we had.
It’s not that I don’t think we made no mistakes. There were a lot of things that happened that I would’ve done differently if I could go back and do it all over again. It’s just that what we had, for the time we had it, was so beautiful that I would never give back that feeling of having been with her.
Anna Cameron had spent too many hours in an airline seat tighter than a respectable dress, and that had done nothing to improve her mood. Used to being impeccably groomed, she felt crumpled, grubby, and even more like a failure as she stepped off the jetway with a wine-stained blouse and naked face. But flying business class was not in her future anymore.
As an unemployed lawyer—aka fired with no hope of ever practicing law again—she needed to manage on a tighter budget.
Honestly, she was lucky to be in Scotland now at all. If her Aunt Elspeth hadn’t been desperate for help with the Beltane Festival and willing to pay her way, Anna would have been stuck in the Cincinnati suburbs instead, hiding out in the kitchen she’d worked so hard to escape, while her mother delivered yet another lecture on the topic of her middle daughter’s many failings. With two broken engagements and a colossal screw-up behind her, Anna was officially a “disappointment.”
Mostly to herself.
But enough. She was determined to be positive. Her old life in Washington, D.C.—and Mike and his new fiancée—were three thousand miles behind her on a different continent. She had dreamed of coming to the Scottish Highlands all her life. Now she was here for an entire month, visiting with her favorite aunt. As a bonus, there was the possibility of turning her knack for organizing events into a new career—one she badly needed.
Shrugging the straps of the four-year-old Louis Vuitton Keepall she’d gotten as a law school graduation present into a more secure position, she set off on long, slim legs toward the baggage claim, her dark tumble of curls bouncing around her shoulders. She even refrained from stopping at the duty-free shop to buy a Toblerone.
But then it happened. An ocean away, and she still could not escape.
“Stand and deliver!”
The demand came loud and clear, as Lady Caroline Godwin’s coach came to a sudden stop. She sucked in a deep breath, holding onto the sides of her bench seat to brace herself against falling off. Her maid did the same, looking up at her in fright. “Oh, my lady. It’s a highwayman. I knew we shouldn’t have travelled at night.”
Lady Caroline couldn’t have agreed more. However, upon receiving news that her father was gravely ill and had lost a fortune at cards again, she knew she must leave London and return home. Travelling at night to get there as quickly as possible had seemed worth the risk. Not only did she need to know exactly how much her father had lost, she knew that her mother wouldn’t be able to cope with the situation. Her father had suffered a stroke immediately after losing and was currently bed bound.
Lady Caroline tried to reassure her maid. “I need you to be calm, Maisie. If we do as the rogue asks, we will come to no harm.” Yet after the initial shout, there was no sign of the highwayman. Furious both at her father for gambling away his money, and for getting stopped like this, Lady Caroline was feeling brave rather than scared. She was about to get out of the coach and see what was going on, when there were a few muffled curses from above them, a few thumps and then silence. She frowned, straining her ears to hear more.
“He’s going to kill us all!” cried Maisie fearfully, before fainting.
Lady Caroline looked at her maid lying in a crumpled heap on the bench seat opposite and couldn’t help feeling even crosser. “For heaven’s sake,” she muttered. And what has happened to my coachman and footman? “Frank? George?” she called out. She was met with silence.
She gasped as the door was suddenly pulled open and a tall, masked figure appeared, holding a pistol. The man, dressed all in black and with a tricorn hat on his head, looked around the coach, before returning his gaze to her. The pistol was aimed at her. “Good evening, my lady.”
Lady Caroline stared at him. The moonlight shone down on him, but didn’t reveal much, due to his dark clothing and black eye mask. She could make out sensual lips though, her gaze drawn to them because it was the only part of his face she could clearly make out. Then her gaze dropped to the pistol aimed at her and she felt renewed anger.
Oklahoma, January 15
The flabby man had stayed crouched for hours in the same shadowy corner of the library where Isa Telwyn worked, which was odd, because it was obvious that he didn’t know how to read.
The large encyclopedia looked tiny in his huge, warty hands. He hadn’t turned the page since he’d arrived, but he kept peering over the top of the book at Isa like he was trying to figure out if he knew her. But the really strange part was that he didn’t seem to realize he was holding the encyclopedia upside down.
Closing time was minutes away, and he didn’t look like he was going anywhere soon. His bulbous body sat folded into a creaky oak chair that strained to hold his mass. The cowboy hat he wore was too small for his round head, but it shaded his face, leaving only an impression of sagging skin, wiry whiskers, and oddly-shaped eyes.
Wind howled outside as the winter storm front closed in. Tiny pellets of ice clicked against glass panes that had protected the books for so long they were rippled with age. The smell of old paper and aging wood wafted through the building as the fierce wind worked its way in through drafty cracks in the aging brick and plaster walls.
The buzzing fluorescent bulbs overhead hadn’t been replaced in years. There weren’t as many as there should have been, thanks to cost-cutting measures, leaving the whole space a labyrinth of shadowy mazes with high bookshelf walls. Even the utilitarian carpet on the floor seemed to absorb light as well as it did sound. Footsteps were muffled, but the creak of aging boards underneath was easy to hear all the way from the back wall to the check-out desk.
Mrs. Bird, the library’s oldest employee, shuffled toward the front desk, eyeing the strange man. Her white hair had thinned, but she still twisted the little wispy bits into a bun that was more bobby pins than hair. She settled her crooked hands on the back of a rickety chair too large for her shrinking frame. “It’s seven,” she said to Isa, confusion clear in her tone. “Why is he still here? Everyone knows we close at seven.”
“I don’t think he’s a local,” Isa said. She lowered her voice to a whisper. “In fact, I don’t think he can read. I bet he’s been sitting over there all day, trying to work up the courage to ask about our classes.”
“Classes are on Saturday. It’s Tuesday.”
Isa stifled a grin at the seriousness of Mrs. Bird’s statement. She’d lived in Silver Gulch her entire life, and after eighty-eight years had a hard time remembering there were other places on the planet where people could exist. This town—this library—was the center of her universe, and Isa feared that if she didn’t get out of here soon, she would end up just like Mrs. Bird sixty years down the line.
The light summer rain that had been falling all morning ceased only moments ago, leaving everything dripping and sparkling in new sunlight. The gunmetal sky was clearing, uncovering a brilliant blue, and the imported palms whispered as a cool easterly breeze brushed their long, sensuous fronds in a tender caress. On this bright August afternoon in 1992, a Sunday, a young man and a woman were making love in a hotel room in New York City.
It was hot in the room, and clothes were strewn all over the red-carpeted floor as the couple lay naked across the double bed, his body moving rhythmically on top of hers, making her moan with pleasure. Her eyes half-closed, she ran her fingers through his hair as his mouth left hers to rain kisses on her chin, her throat, her breasts. His mouth traveled up against hers again, and as he gently caressed her breasts, he excited her more and more until she gave a loud, ecstatic cry of total satisfaction. The mutual climax seemed endless, and when they finally stopped, she lay weakly in his arms. They were both covered in sweat, and he ran his fingers through her hair. Her breath was uneven as she looked up at him and smiled, her look inviting an answering smile from him.
He reached for the half-empty bottle of champagne on the bedside table. “Would you like a glass?” he asked.
“No, thanks,” she replied. “I’ve had enough champagne for now. But a cup of tea would be lovely.”
As he nodded, she brought her lips against his, then reached over and picked up her creamy silk peignoir, wrapped it around herself, and walked across the room to sit by the large window. A minute later, having called room service for tea, he joined her. From here on the ninth floor, the view of the city stretching out before them was incredible.
Frank Dawson, a tall, muscular man with light brown eyes and dark hair that hung down across his forehead, looked to be in his early thirties, but was in fact twenty-four. He had an attractive, sophisticated face with an expression that suggested he had already seen a lot in his life.
Christine Barkley, who was nineteen, also looked older. She was tall and slender, with blue eyes and long blonde hair that framed a face of finely boned, perfectly proportioned features.
The noise of the traffic below was barely audible as they sat in silence for a moment.
“Thanks for the wonderful, romantic weekend,” he finally said. “Usually, this kind of thing comes with a small gift and a letter of apology, saying that you’re sorry for never telling me that you were actually a lesbian.”
She smiled gently at his little joke. “Very funny.”
“I’d still love you just as much even if you turned out to be a lesbian.”
She crossed her bare legs on the big couch. “Oh, stop it!”
He laughed shortly. “We can go for a ride,” he said. “The rain’s stopped.”
He looked at his watch. “It’s still early.”
“I know, but I’m having quite a good time right here.”
“Well, then, I suppose you don’t mind at all that we’ve been stuck here in this hotel room since Friday afternoon?”
“Not at all.” She moved to sit in his lap. A loose strand of hair came down over her face as she leaned closer to him and gave him a quick kiss on the mouth.
He rolled the stray lock of hair round her ear, and then wrapped his arms around her waist. “I wouldn’t mind being stuck here with you forever.”
“The feeling is mutual.” She looked at him affectionately as she stroked his face with her hand. “We hardly spend enough quality time together. I just want us to make the most of every moment we share right now. No people, no joyrides, no restaurants. Just you and I, enjoying each other’s company.”
He gave her a questioning look. “Apart from talking and all the board games we’ve been playing for the past two days, what else do you suggest we do for the rest of the afternoon?”
She gave him one of her big smiles, warm and seductive. “Well, how about we go back to bed and continue what we were doing a few minutes ago?”
“Now that sounds like a very good idea.”
“Come here.” He took her hand and they walked back to the bed. “You’re so irresistible,” he murmured against her throat as he slid her peignoir down to her waist. Then he bent to kiss her breasts. Her hands in his hair, she began to moan, but then there was a knock on the door.
He sat up. “Damn!”
“Room service,” a man’s voice called from outside.
Frank stood up while Christine hastily pulled up the peignoir. Then he picked up their clothes from the floor before he went to open the door. The waiter came in with his tray of tea and its accompaniments. Frank pointed to the bedside table.
“Put it over there.”
The smiling waiter set down the fine china teapot and cups, sliced lemon, sugar, and some cookies and slices of fruitcake. After Frank signed the bill, the waiter inclined his head and left.
Christine poured the tea. “I think I should give my father a call,” she said. “He’s been back from London since yesterday.”
Frank squeezed some lemon into his tea. “When you do, please give him my love,” he joked.
“And give him a heart attack?” She sipped her tea.
“The man who produced you must be worthy of affection…even if he doesn’t approve of me.”
“That’s not funny,” she said, her expression suddenly solemn. “My parents still think I’m nine years old and that they can bully me into submission.”
“Relax! No one has a clue where we are. Not even the paparazzi. And they seem to follow you everywhere you go.”
She frowned. “See? That’s the problem. I’m tired of the secrecy! I want my parents to know about our relationship. We can’t go on like this.”
“Hey.” He looked at her thoughtfully. “Where’s all of this coming from all of a sudden? We promised each other we wouldn’t let anything spoil our weekend.”
“I’m sorry.” She made a frustrated gesture. “It’s just that I don’t want this. We love each other and being scared about it is not right.”
“Look, I know it’s hard, but everything will be okay. Just give it some time.”
“I’m just so tired of all the sneaking and lying. I’m tired of pretending that we’re merely friends. I want my parents to know that we’re in love. Only that way can we truly be happy and get married.” Her eyes had taken on a faint sheen of tears.
The subject of her parents was a sensitive one and they had talked very little about it.
“I know that’s what you want, but we can’t lose focus now,” he said. “I haven’t said we’re going to keep our relationship a secret forever. It’s just that now isn’t the right time.”
“Sometimes I wonder if the right time will ever come.” She looked away as she wiped a tear from her eye.
“Christine, look at me.” She did, and he touched her cheek. “Do you understand? We can’t let your parents find out about us now.”
“No,” she replied in a tremulous voice, “I don’t understand. Why does this have to be so complicated for us? Why can’t we be like other couples?”
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“I’m sorry it came to this. If you need a reference in the future, please let me know. I’d be happy to help you out in any way possible.” My eyes follow the chapped lips before me as I try to comprehend the words that were just spit my way.
“I’m sorry, what?” I ask with confusion. I obviously didn’t hear him right because there’s no way my boss just fired me.
“If there is anything I can do, please let me know,” he repeats, a little slower this time. Then adds, for the fifth time since we sat down together, “I’m sorry, Emma.”
I open my mouth, but I quickly close it when no words flow out. I wait for the right letters to align together and register with my mouth, because right now all I can think of stammering out is, “What the fuck? Are you shitting me? It’s my birthday! You’re an asshole!”
Taking in a deep breath, I calmly recollect my thoughts. “But why?” I’m shocked at how soothing my voice is.
My now former boss, Mike, pushes away from the mahogany desk that looks just as old and tired as he does and shifts in his chair uncomfortably until his arms eventually end up crisscrossed in front of his chest. His eyes dart over my shoulder to the empty canvas on the wall, then slowly drag to the ugly eggnog carpet that covers his office floor. He clears his voice, avoiding eye contact. “Look, Emma, you’re a nice young girl and I’m sure you’ll succeed…”
“Just not here,” I cut him off. Not that I see myself succeeding in the restaurant business as a waitress, but that’s beside the point. I need a job.
I need this job.
Or rather, I need the tip money for living expenses.