“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.
Of all the events that happened in the months after I met Sol, the first I remember is the day he sent me twenty-five roses. The bouquet was the first gift I received from him – in fact, the first flowers from any man. When Sol didn’t call me after the incident in the library, I worried that my angry outburst had given him second thoughts. For three days, I waited in agony for his call. I blamed myself and once again regretted how I often acted without thinking.
My mother was at home that afternoon working on a dress for a wealthy client in Westmount. Thinking back, I imagine her kneeling on the floor cutting out a pattern with her large shears, her tongue poking out to the side from between her lips. The doorbell rings. She stands and smoothes her house dress, wondering if it is Mrs. LeClerc, our next door neighbor. Opening the door, she sees a truck with a sign ‘Robichard Fleuristes de Montréal.’
“Fleurs pour Rebecca…ah,’ the delivery man examines the invoice, “Wiseman. Signer ici.”
Of course, I don’t know if the man hesitated, but in my imagination he does. My mind always enhances my memories until sometimes I can’t remember what is real and what I make up. I blame this exaggeration on my life-long habit of reading one or two books a week.
My mother tried to act as if nothing unusual had happened. I could see she was excited, but guessed she had a new commission for a dress. “Come,” she said and taking my hand, led me into the dining room. I smelled the roses before I saw them. The bouquet filled a deep blue vase in the middle of the table. The late afternoon sunlight, coming through the windows, seemed to illuminate only the roses. The red color of the delicate petals was hypnotic.
“From Dad?” Had I forgotten my parents’ anniversary?
She looked at me as if I’d asked a stupid question. “No, they’re for you. From Sol.”
My mother laughed, clasping her hands under her chin in delight. “Of course. How many Sols do you know who’d send you flowers?”
My hands trembled as I took the card from its place between two roses. I was annoyed I couldn’t be calm and sophisticated as if this gift were only to be expected.
A rose for each day of our budding friendship.
“Fine,” she said to the computer screen. “Fine. You win. I hope you enjoy all those words of mine you just devoured.”
Ruth glared at the laptop, wanting to growl at the infuriating thing. She’d just spent her scant thirty minute lunch break typing through fear and resistance to add to her growing romance novel — only to have the computer eat all her progress.
She glanced at the clock on the corner of the screen and sighed. Just a few more minutes and then the bell would ring and a tumble of first graders fresh from recess would stream into the classroom, tracking mud and flinging sweaty jackets every which way no matter how often she asked them to put their things in their cubbyholes, please.
Ruth stood to gather up the leavings of her lunch, closing the computer document containing her novel. She loved her students, and loved getting to see them grow and change over the course of the school year. But she wasn’t so sure she loved the teaching itself. She’d only gotten into education because she hadn’t known what to do after she’d graduated from college, and the elementary ed program at Boston College was the only grad school degree program she could find that was still taking applications. And going back to live in her parents’ home and once again be the whipping post for the pain of their soured marriage? Not an option.
And she’d actually thought that she’d love teaching. But while she didn’t hate it . . . it wasn’t her. It wasn’t what lit her heart on fire. Writing did that.
But, as her father loved to point out, writing stories wasn’t practical. It didn’t pay the bills, didn’t pay for hardly anything, really, except for the very talented or very lucky. “And you are neither,” he’d said the day she’d announced that she had decided to earn a bachelor’s degree in creative writing.
Ruth’s stomach clenched at the memory of those words she’d never been quite able to shake, even after two more years of undergrad, a whirlwind single year of graduate school, and then three years teaching at this elementary school in Cambridge, one of her favorite parts of Boston. She still didn’t know how she’d managed to snag this job; the competition had been impressive and copious.
But somehow she’d found herself here, and three years in she was realizing that as practical as “here” might be, it was slowly but surely draining her away. And there was no way out in sight. No wonder so many of the older teachers she’d met were so bitter; they’d been sucked dry, perhaps, just like she was.
Ruth tossed her lunch’s remains into the trash, took a gulp from her water bottle, and stood for a moment in the silence of the classroom. She massaged her fingers against the base of her skull, closing her eyes, wishing for the umpteenth time for a man that could do that for her every once in a while. Maybe that was why she was writing a romance novel, a genre that she’d always scoffed at as an undergrad. A guy to toy with her wild brunette curls, to rub her feet at the end of a long day, and to fondle her —
No. She snapped her eyes open. No need to fantasize about something that seemed likely to never happen, according to her completely awful dating batting average. Although that was hardly an appropriate analogy, Ruth thought as she flipped open her lesson planner to remind herself what was on tap for the afternoon. You couldn’t have a batting average if you’d hardly been up at bat. There just weren’t any guys that made the risk seem worth it.
Ruth gazed around the room at the rather tired looking paper hearts and colorful paper chains that were leftover from the previous week’s welcome-back-to-school class party. All the children had exchanged little notes of friendship with each other, which they’d opened with such delight. They made her think of the Valentine’s Day parties she’d celebrated with her own classmates as a child. It had seemed so simple a thing, then, so easy to believe that love was in her future, that loneliness was no one’s destiny. And yet here she was, a woman in the prime of her life who’d barely been touched in any sort of a romantic way, stuck in a job that she tried desperately to love and couldn’t.
The bell that summoned the students in from recess shattered the silence of the room. Ruth sighed, then rolled her eyes. It seemed like all she did was sigh these days. With one last glare at the computer that had stolen the fruit of the little passionate labor she was allowed, she went to usher her first graders back to the classroom.
Lila picked up her knife and fork, not exactly sure how to even approach such an enormous pile of carbohydrates. She smothered the breakfast cakes with butter, then poured on the syrup.
“You’re doing it wrong,” a male voice said.
Lila was so startled that her knife and fork clattered to the Formica tabletop. Perhaps her nerves were propelled a bit by guilt for eating such non-nutritious foods.
And then her fingers were even clumsier as she stared at the man approaching the table. Several words popped into her head all at once. Gorgeous. Rugged. Hard. And pathetically moonstruck.
The “pathetic” and “moonstruck” words applied to her. Not to the man. The enormous man. The man looking at her as if he wanted to rough her up. Goodness, what was he about to do? Surely he wasn’t going to sit down across from her. Was he?
Lila pushed her plate away. “I didn’t know…” she stammered out. “I apologize.” Her cheeks were turning pink and she was looking around, painfully aware that others in the diner were now staring at her. Or perhaps they were staring at this man. He really was a huge man!
Oh my goodness, he actually did it! He slid into the booth across from her, his calloused hands resting on the table. Lila might still have the whole table between them, but just his presence caused her to pull back. She was stunned by how broad his shoulders were and, in that instant, she felt crowded by his size.
“You need to cut them up, then put the syrup on. That way, the syrup soaks into the pancakes better,” Jake explained.
He was staring at the gorgeous woman who looked like she’d just helped her grandmother keel over. The guilty expression was almost laughable, and he felt slightly bad for startling her.
Lila continued to stare at the man, still trying to absorb how large he was. Perhaps the jacket was adding several inches to those shoulders, but even still, he was huge! She realized that he’d just spoken to her but, for the life of her, she had no idea what he’d just said. “Excuse me?” she replied politely, not really sure what he was talking about. Her mind had gone completely blank and no matter how hard she tried to jump-start her mental acuity, it was a lost cause with this man sitting across the table from her.
Jake thought about explaining again, but he was just a bit too flabbergasted by this woman. She was, quite simply, stunning! He was surrounded by beautiful women all the time, women who spent hours primping and spending obscene amounts of money at day spas.
None of them could even come close to the startling beauty of this redhead, her hair sparkling in the sunshine streaming in through the diner’s window not to mention those blue eyes that told the world everything she might be thinking.
As he sat across the table, he could see the dark circles under her pale skin and her nails were broken, unpainted, her sweatshirt was about four sizes too big and he still was trying to hide his body’s reaction to her. There was just something about her, a frailty or perhaps a vulnerability that she didn’t want, but couldn’t hide either. Well, and that hair! Damn, her hair was a gorgeous color and he wished she hadn’t scraped it back and braided it. He’d like to see it spread out around her shoulders. Or even better, spread out on his pillow.
It all started when Agee was walking home from school, as he passed an apartment building close to the corner. Waiting for the light to change, Agee glanced up and noticed a piece of paper drifting down from an open window. It was snow white and he snatched it as it swirled around him. There was a message written on it: “I’m tired. Good-bye. 4B.”
Agee was thinking: Why would someone bother to write a note and not even sign it? And to top it off, why would they toss it out the window? Then he heard the gunshot coming from the same open window.
Although he was relatively young at eight years old, Agee could put two and two together. He figured there had to be some sort of connection between the note and the gunshot. The police would probably want what he was now clutching in his hand for evidence. So, he calmly walked across the street to the doorman who had been inside the lobby during all this and hadn’t a clue.
“Where’d you get this?” the doorman asked.
“Someone in your building wrote it and it floated down to me,” said Agee.
Within six minutes the paramedics had arrived and had gained access to Edie’s apartment, which was 4B. Luckily the person living in 4C was home and had heard the shot and the subsequent thud of someone falling against the wall and onto the floor. Luckier still, Edie didn’t know how to fire a pistol properly and had aimed far enough away from her head to only graze it.
When the emergency room doctor asked Edie why she tried to kill herself, she smiled as if embarrassed and told her: “I was having a bad day, that’s all.”
The next day Agee heard about it when the doorman motioned him over for a chat on his way home from school. “Kid, you saved her life.”
“What do you mean?”
“When the cops came to talk to her in the ER, she said it was an accident. But the note she wrote proves there was intent to do bodily harm. So instead of letting her go, the doctors sent her to the psych ward at Our Lady of Angels for observation.”
Feeling somewhat responsible, Agee asked Susan (his mother, who wasn’t the type to pry into anyone’s business) if he could visit Edie, which meant that she had to call the hospital, explain the situation, and accompany him.
Once they got to the psych ward, Susan stayed in the waiting room while her son was escorted down the hall to the visiting room. Edie was sitting on a couch, looking intently at a replica of Van Gogh’s Starry Night. Very used to engaging adults in conversation, after being pointed in the right direction, Agee went up to Edie and introduced himself.
“Hi. I’m the guy who found your note.”
“I found your note. Actually, it floated out your window right to me.”
Edie was thirty-six years old, brown-eyed with auburn hair that was cut short with a layered look. She was five-foot-three and worked for a theatre group as a marketing director. Normally she wore oval shaped glasses with black rims. But at the minute she wasn’t wearing them. They were in the pocket of her hospital gown because she was farsighted and didn’t particularly want to remember any details of the hospital.
“Yeah, well, thanks for nothing.”
“Pardon?” Agee was a very literal-minded person and he had no idea why this woman would thank him for doing nothing.
“The note. I wasn’t being honest…you should have just ignored it.” Almost instantly Edie caught herself, despite the situation. She held out her hand. “I’m sorry. My name’s Edie. What’s yours?”
“Agee, like the playwright?”
“So I’m told.”
Edie couldn’t help laughing. “What a grown-up way of putting it.”
“The fact that you know that you’re named after a famous writer.”
“Lots of people are named after someone or something. How about you?”
“I’m not one of those people.”
Actually Edie was one of those people. Her mother was nineteen years old when she gave birth without the benefit of knowing, for sure, who the father was. She choose the name for her daughter because, out of the blue, she was thinking of names that rhymed with Stevie Nicks, the singer. If her daughter wouldn’t have the benefit of knowing her dad, at least she’d know that her name was linked with someone whose history was traceable. Unfortunately, Edie hated Fleetwood Mac and that got in the way of appreciating Stevie Nicks. Anyway, she had her own definite taste in music and it didn’t include any bands or solo acts from the 70’s.
Being the sensitive sort, Agee tried to steer the conversation away from first names. “So, how long have you lived in your apartment building?”
“Not long, actually, only a few weeks. I used to live across town. I had a place close to my boyfriend, but he and I weren’t getting along and I needed a change.”
“You got tired of each other?”
“Yeah, that’s what you wrote on your note.”
Edie took a deep breath. She had to make a quick decision. Why was this kid asking her such a direct question? What business of his was it? Did she want to expend the emotional energy it would take to explain? On the other hand, he was just a kid. A precocious one, but still, a kid. Should she go ahead and take a chance on the offhand that maybe this young boy, by engaging her in conversation, would draw out what was buried inside her? Or should she leave it up to the professionals?
Ultimately, she decided that it was just as easy to speak to Agee as to any credentialed adult about her personal business.
Near the village of Heatheredge
It had taken thirty-two years, but he was home.
Cailean breathed deep of the chill dawn air, ripe with pine, morning dew…and promise. A hint of heather teased his senses. Deep in the wilds of Sutherland, Scotland’s most rugged and remote region, he stood in an empty moorland field. Hands resting on the hilt of the sword he’d driven into the peaty soil, he watched the April morning break in blue-grays above the mist-covered treetops. Soon, the rich golden blooms of gorse and broom would glisten in the sunlight. The village on the far side of the woods would waken and the ancient road that curved through its heart would prove scarcely wide enough to accommodate the throng of visitors. Visitors like him.
Cailean tracked his gaze along the breeze swaying heather. A tiny whirlwind leapt to life near the trees, then jolted toward him. He watched in amusement as the whirlwind batted the pink heather then jumped away. Its breeze reached him and he tensed in anticipation when the cooling mist danced across his bare flesh between kilt and boots. The wind abruptly softened and swirled around him as if in a lover’s embrace. Cailean smiled. Even the cold Highland air welcomed him home.
“Heatheredge,” he murmured, “I am yours.”
He glanced at the path that led to the village and watched swirling mist rise in thick folds along the field’s edge. Within the murk, a dark line of near impenetrable pines obscured all but the trail’s beginning. Above the fog, Clan Mackay’s impressive seat, Heatheredge Tower, speared the mist, rising from the trees like a citadel that pierced the clouds. At gloaming, he would stride through the stronghold’s gates and be welcomed as a friend and ally.
Cailean pulled his sword from the earth, then whipped the blade high, slicing air and invisible foes.