Excerpt Enchanted Afternoon
April 13, 2016
The Calhoun Chronicles
Enchanted Afternoon (Calhoun Chronicles #4)
Mira (September 2002)
She wore long sleeves to cover the bruises. Although the July sun burned like hellfire and damnation through the soundless house — even the French voile curtains in the parlor windows didn’t dare to stir — she kept herself covered in the very height of fashion.
That, after all, was what people expected of a senator’s wife. Or, she thought with a dizzying leap of hope, his former wife. But that hope would be fulfilled only if she managed to get what she wanted out of this meeting.
She waited in the summer parlor, where the tall mantelpiece mirror was draped in mourning black. Though she’d lived in the handsome house in Vandam Square for years, a fine edge of terror and panic sharpened her perceptions. She noticed all the elegant details and art treasures in the room as though for the first time — the Italianate plaster wainscoting, the Meissen porcelain vase atop a Sheridan table, the ormolu clock on the mantel, the German—made harp in the corner, a series of boring, expensive pastoral scenes of lakes and forests and fox hunts hanging on the walls.
On a wall all to itself hung the strange new painting she had chosen on her own, just last season. It was the only thing in the room she didn’t find boring, the only thing she had acquired without consulting her husband.
It was a scene called Woman at Bath by an obscure French painter named Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas. Unlike the bucolic scenes that graced the halls of the vast mansion, this particular painting of a decidedly unglamorous nude drying her abundant body tended to shock everyone, even though it interested and excited her. In the bold distortions of water and light, she could see something special. The intimate, sensuous portrait depicted a woman comfortable in her own skin, and she felt like a different person looking at that painting. For that reason, she loved it. Because she so dearly wanted to be a different person — someone, anyone else.
There was another reason she loved the strange, light—washed picture.
Her husband hated it. The only reason he let her keep it was that she’d told him it had been a gift from the Vanderbilts. That wasn’t true, of course, but it was the least of the lies she’d told him over the course of their nine—year marriage.
The faint jingle of harness outside the open window startled her, even though she was expecting it. She heard the footsteps of Archie Soames, the butler, as he went to the door. She moved to the window, which was veiled by sheer curtains. The wispy fabric exuded a hot smell, like fresh ironing. Because the curtains diffused the view of the driveway, the arriving vehicle appeared like something out of a dream.
With one finger, she pushed aside the crisp white curtain, bringing the view into sharp focus. The black enameled side of the open carriage bore curlicue letters arranged in an arch over a rising, stylized sun — the symbol of the Hudson Valley Institute for Innovation. A tall man stepped down from the vehicle, and for a moment she forgot how to breathe.
Instinctively, she stepped away from the heat and light of the window. But she couldn’t resist watching through a gap in the curtains as he spoke briefly to the driver and then headed up the walkway toward the house. He wore green—tinted celluloid sunglasses, all the rage among cyclists and drivers these days, and his clothes were rumpled, as though he had picked them up from a heap on the floor.
She wasn’t prepared for the effect he still had on her, after all this time. Yes, she felt bitter resentment — that was to be expected, given the way he’d treated her. But like a current beneath the surface of a calm lake, she sensed something else. Something as forbidden and as undeniable as the passion she had felt when she first met him, nearly a decade before.
She resisted the urge to push aside the shroud that draped the mantel mirror and study her reflection. Instead, she checked and double checked the fitted bombazine sleeves of her black mourning gown, neatly fastened at the wrists with a row of obsidian buttons. Appearances were everything. It was perhaps the first lesson she could remember learning, drummed into her by a stern—faced nanny dressing her at the age of three for her mother’s funeral.
Should she be seated? No, that would wrinkle the gown. She positioned herself on the Persian silk hearth rug in the middle of the parlor, posing like one of the concrete statues in Congress Spring Park. Glaring light from the window made her skin prickle with heat. She wore her copper—colored curls swept up, though a trickle of perspiration rolled down the back of her neck. She tried to arrange her face into an expression of serenity — not out of vanity but habit. Her looks had brought her nothing but trouble. Yet she knew of no other way to present herself.
Besides, some perverse part of her wanted him to feel the same waves of nostalgic longing that were coursing through her now.
With a flourish, Archie opened both parlor doors. “A gentleman to see you, ma’am.” The butler’s voice rasped with the roughness of a summer cold, and his
slight emphasis on the term gentleman added a note of skepticism.
“Of course. Thank you.” The butler melted back into the foyer and her visitor strode into the room, removing his tinted spectacles and setting them on a side table. His fathomless eyes were even bluer than memory allowed. He took one look at her, and the expression on his face was everything she had anticipated — curiosity and wonder, shaded with suspicion and perhaps regret.
They stared at each other, the air between them heavy and palpable with memories.
“Helena.” He said her name in a low voice that reverberated through her like a lingering caress.
“Hello, Professor Rowan,” she said, deliberately using his formal title. “Thank you for coming. Would you like something to drink?” She gestured at the carved mahogany sideboard in the corner, laden with a sweating pitcher of lemonade and a silver bowl of chipped ice.
“Yes, please.” She spooned ice into a crystal goblet, then poured the lemonade. Nerves made her hands unsteady. Had she been mistaken in asking him to come? Perhaps so, but she didn’t know what else to do. Like a rabbit caught in a snare, she would turn anywhere, do anything to escape, even if running away wounded her worse than staying put. She would do anything to reclaim her safety, even turn to the one man she thought she would never see again.
Terror was a new sensation to her. It clutched at her spine with icy fingers, pressed at her chest until she couldn’t breathe, making her dizzy with its power. She refused to live like this, frozen from the inside out. She wasn’t rational; she knew that. Fear kept her from thinking clearly. And in that moment of madness, she had sent for Michael Rowan.
Convincing him to help her was a long shot, but she was desperate. Perhaps it was callous, this imperious summons, but she didn’t really care. Years ago, Michael Rowan had used her in the worst possible way, then he’d left without even a by—your—leave. So she should not feel the least bit guilty about using him now.
When she turned, there he stood, only inches from her. Flustered, she pushed the glass into his hand. Lemonade sloshed over the side.
“Oh, I —”
“Not to worry.” He set the glass on the silver tray. Good glory, how could such an unkempt man be so appealing? His hair was too long, curling several inches over the back of his collar. He needed a shave. His clothes were a disgrace. And yet there was something about him that mesmerized and haunted her. Regardless of the passage of time, that aspect of him hadn’t changed.