Sun-Sentinel (Ft. Lauderdale, FL) The consummate storyteller.
Jeffery Deaver Astonishing...wry...these stories are sure to delight.
USA Today bestselling author Jan Burke delivers chills, suspense, shockers, and sharp wit in eighteen works of short fiction sure to satisfy longtime fans and newcomers alike. This positively addictive anthology is full of surprises a patchwork of settings and characters not soon forgotten, and mysterious twists and revelations not quickly/b>/i>… See more details below
USA Today bestselling author Jan Burke delivers chills, suspense, shockers, and sharp wit in eighteen works of short fiction sure to satisfy longtime fans and newcomers alike. This positively addictive anthology is full of surprises a patchwork of settings and characters not soon forgotten, and mysterious twists and revelations not quickly shaken!
Agatha Award nominee for Best Short Story
Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine Readers Award and Macavity Award winner
"The Man in the Civil Suit"
Agatha Award winner
"The Abbey Ghosts"
Edgar Award nominee
...and also features her first Irene Kelly story,
"A Fine Set of Teeth."
Sun-Sentinel (Ft. Lauderdale, FL) The consummate storyteller.
Jeffery Deaver Astonishing...wry...these stories are sure to delight.
The shovel half-rang like a muted bell as it struck the metal. Leila Anderson sighed and stopped digging, wiping the back of her leather glove across her forehead. She was hot and tired, but determined to finish planting this last section of her garden.
She turned from the corner where she had been working and looked across the big backyard. It should have been our garden, our yard, our house, she thought to herself. Sam should be here with me.
But he wasn't. Samuel Barrington had left her for a girl of twenty-two, a girl who made mooning cow's eyes at the silly man. Before Cow Eyes Marietta Hinchley came into the picture, Leila had known exactly how things were going to be. She knew that after four years of being engaged, she and Sam would finally marry; knew that they would move out of the apartment they had shared and into a lovely house; knew that she would keep getting promotions at the investment firm she worked for; knew that Sam would continue to be able to pursue his doctorate in mathematics, because she, Leila, would support them, just as she always had. And most certainly, back in those golden days, Leila had known what was expected of her. Her ability to predict and her own predictability. That was Leila's life.
But Sam had surprised her. She hadn't ever been fond of surprises, and this one did nothing to endear them to her. "You're so reasonable, Leila," Sam had said that day. "I know you'll understand." Leila would always be his friend, Sam had told her, but in Marietta, he had found passion.
Passion! Didn't he know she, Leila, was capable of passion? Of course she had always been controlled around him. She had eschewed the sentimental, been the "reasonable" woman he had come to rely on. As logical as his beloved mathematics. The habit of it was ingrained in her so deeply, that even as he was telling her of his unfaithfulness, she had reacted just as she had known Sam would want her to react, exactly in the way he had come to depend on her to react: reasoned, calm, controlled. But that was on the outside. Inside, she raged. Raged passionately.
So used to pleasing Sam, though, she was determined not to let him know how wounded her pride was. She reasoned that at that particular moment, the only psychological weapon she had to defend herself with was her dignity, and she used it like a knife.
She had met Marietta the next day. Sam, oblivious to the tension between the two women, had begun his "let's all be friends" campaign without delay. A beautiful, slim, athletic, young woman, Marietta had tried hard to upset Leila's equanimity. She made allusions to Leila's age, which was not more than eight years above her own; she hinted that Leila was out of shape, which was untrue. Leila was not the athlete that Marietta was, but she was no slouch. Sam had seemed a little displeased with Marietta's lack of grace. And Leila knew that while Sam had been relieved and grateful that she had not fallen apart, Marietta had been hoping for a tantrum, a scene. Marietta, Leila had seen in a moment, was a bitch. Leila had smiled, certain that Sam would more than do his penance.
He would do his penance, but at that moment he was too smitten with Marietta to realize what he had let himself in for. He saw Marietta as a lonely child, dependent on him for guidance. He later tried to apologize to Leila for Marietta's bad behavior, saying that Marietta was alone in the world, without family to guide her. Sam thought himself capable of teaching her manners. Leila thought it was the biggest joke Sam had ever played on himself, but said nothing.
Hoping that living well was indeed the best revenge, she went on with her life. She had chosen this house on her own and bought it. The house had been built in the 1920s, and she loved its polished wooden floors and arched windows and tall ceilings. The day after her furniture was moved in, she went to work on the garden with all of the passion she had leftover from the end of her relationship with Sam. She dug up old, neglected flower beds and planted them with bright, beautiful blossoms: impatiens and fuchsia and pansies and geraniums; a wild, unpredictable mix of anything that would give her eye a moment's pleasure. She planted pink jasmine and roses along the high stone fence that surrounded the big yard. She was glad of the privacy that fence gave her yard, her little oasis of color and fragrance.
She had saved this corner for last. A week ago, while pruning back the poorly tended honeysuckle that had overgrown this corner, she discovered something that had made her cry. Beneath the vines she had found something made of stone, broken in two parts. When she had realized it was a loveseat, it had suddenly come to symbolize her broken romance with Sam, and for the first time since the day he had told her of Marietta, she had cried. Four months of bottled pain and humiliation burst from her like champagne from an uncorked bottle, and cold, predictable, passionless Leila wept in her garden.
The relief of it had been great. Later she called her old friend, Arnie, who was a landscape contractor. Arnie, who had benefitted more than once from Leila's ability to chose investments, was happy to make arrangements to have the broken loveseat hauled off. The day after it was gone, Leila went back to work in the garden.
On this warm June day, she had dug up about two feet of soil in the area of the corner, preparing to plant a last trio of rosebushes, when the shovel had rung out. She knelt down on all fours, picking up a small hand spade, and tried to clear away the soil that covered the metal object that was thwarting her progress. Thinking of Sam and Marietta, she dug with furious movements, showering dirt everywhere, some of it landing in her hair and on her clothes. Before long, the spade struck the object as well. She scraped aside enough of the soil to reveal a dark, rusty piece of metal. Curious, she continued to dig at the soil surrounding it. It was flat and smooth. She reached a curving edge and burrowed with her hands to grasp the edge of object. She tugged and pulled, and suddenly it came free, causing her to fall back on her rump. Dirt flew everywhere, and she laughed as she looked at the heavy object on her lap. A frying pan.
"Why would anyone bury a cast iron skillet upside down in the corner of a garden?" she wondered aloud. It was heavy and large, but there were no special markings on it. She set it on the brick walkway which curved past the area she was working on. She brushed herself off and looked into the hole from which she had pulled the skillet. A shiny object caught her eye, and once again she used the hand spade to clear the soil away. She soon had freed enough of the soil to see that it was the lid of a jar, and could tell that the jar was still attached.
Feeling a certain mild excitement, as if she were a backyard archeologist, she carefully worked around the jar, finally freeing it. She brushed it off with a gloved hand and held it up. A Mason jar, filled with old-fashioned buttons. The glass of the jar was thick, and she wondered how old it was. She set the jar next to the skillet, trying to make sense of them, and of their burial.
Unable to succeed in solving that puzzle, she stood up and went back to work with the shovel. But she had not been digging very long, when once again the shovel struck an object. She knelt again and went to work with the hand spade. This time, she found a small, crude wooden box, about the size of a shoe box. The blow from the shovel had splintered the lid, and inside the box was a small canvas bag filled with old marbles. She continued to use the hand spade.
An hour later, she had an odd collection on the walkway: to the skillet, the button jar and the marbles, she had added an old pocket watch, a wedding band wrapped in a linen handkerchief, a fragment of stained glass. The handkerchief bore pretty embroidery, and the initials "CG"; the inside of the ring was inscribed, "Chloe and Jonathan, 2-22-41." There was no inscription on the watch, but the crystal was cracked and the hands stopped at 6:10. Again she wondered why this particular group of objects had been buried here. A child might bury marbles, maybe even buttons, but a skillet? A wedding ring or a pocket watch? Why hide such objects? It was unsettling.
Leila continued to dig, and the next discovery brought her up short. The toe of a rubber boot. She was afraid to touch it, afraid the boot would still be attached to the owner. She stared at it, wondered if she should call the police, then smiled to herself over this unexpected nervousness. Still, when she reached down to move the soil away from it, her hand trembled. The toe of the boot felt as if it had something in it.
Timidly, she used the small spade, afraid to reach down into the soil with her hands. But as she made her way through the layer surrounding it, she saw no bones or rotting flesh. She pulled it free and held it upside down, spilling most of its contents on the walk. The boot held a woman's black leather shoe, and nothing but more soil. She pulled the shoe out. Further digging led to no new revelations.
Leila gathered the collection of objects and took them back to the house, where she cleaned them off as best she could. She poured a glass of red wine and sipped it thoughtfully while she took a long, hot bubble bath in her claw-foot bathtub. She climbed out when the water began to chill, and made her decision.
"I appreciate your coming by on such short notice," Leila said to her guest, as they reached the back patio.
Alice Grayson smiled as she looked across the backyard, then back at the young woman who had invited her here. "You've done wonders with it."
"As for the notice, I am no different than most old ladies; I have more time than opportunities. And I must admit your invitation intrigued me. Buried treasure in the backyard of the house you bought from me?"
"Have a seat, please," Leila said, gesturing to a rattan patio chair that was next to a low table. The table, covered with a lumpy cloth, held what Alice Grayson assumed was the "treasure."
Leila took a seat on the other side of the table and poured a glass of wine for each of them. "How long ago did you live here, Mrs. Grayson?"
"Alice. No need for formality. And it's Miss Grayson. I never married. And I never lived here."
She laughed at Leila's look of surprise.
"This house belonged to my uncle, and then to my brother. I inherited it from him."
It was Alice Grayson's turn to look surprised. "How on earth did you learn his name?"
"I believe I found his wedding ring, along with a rather strange assortment of other objects." Leila lifted the cover.
"Good Lord," Alice said, and her blue eyes grew watery.
Leila watched her in silence, amazed at how discomposed the older woman seemed. She had met Alice Grayson only once before, when the escrow had closed, but had taken an immediate liking to her. Alice had told her that she was in her seventies, but Leila thought she seemed more lively and energetic than Leila did at thirty. Alice seemed to have liked her too, giving her a phone number to call should she have any questions about the house. Leila knew that she couldn't have expected the questions which actually did arise.
"I'll be happy to give all of these things to you," Leila said. "They seem to mean something to you. But please, can you tell me why this particular set of objects was buried here?"
Alice dabbed at her eyes. "Forgive me. I'm sorry to be so emotional. After all these years, you wouldn't think that I could react so strongly. Yes, certainly." She sighed. "Where to begin?"
She reached over and picked up the gold band. "This was Jonathan's wedding ring; his wedding ring from his first marriage, to Chloe Manning. Chloe was a lovely young girl. They were both young; she was nineteen years old, he was about twenty-one, I believe. It was just before the war."
"In February of 1941? That's the date on the ring."
"Yes. That April, our uncle died after a long illness and left this house and his store to Jonathan, who had worked for him. Jonathan and Chloe were very much in love. She was pretty, and full of life and laughter, and she spoiled him rotten. She was an excellent seamstress.
"He thought her the perfect wife in all but one regard. She was a terrible cook. But Jonathan didn't want to hurt her feelings so he always ate the meals she made for him with a smile. I lived just down the street then, and he'd come over to visit me after dinner, and groan and down bottles of antacid. She caught on, and one day gave him a large, heavy box with a big bow on it. There was a big, cast iron skillet in it. She laughed and told him she would help him run the store if he would help her cook."
"Do you think this is that same skillet? Why would he bury it?"
"I would be surprised to learn it was not that skillet. As for why, well, perhaps it is best if I continue to tell you their story.
"In December of 1941, they had a little boy, William, named after my uncle. He was born two days before Pearl Harbor. Jonathan was drafted. They were very brave about it, as were most people then. Chloe and I ran the store, and Little Billy kept us too busy to feel sorry for ourselves."
She paused and took a sip of wine.
"She was staying with me then; she had rented her place out to a group of women who worked at a war plant. One rainy night, after we closed up the store, Chloe told me she was going to stop by our little church on the way home. It was the winter of 1944. Jonathan had been wounded and was being sent back home. Chloe had been worried about Jonathan; said she hadn't been able to sleep much, and wanted to pray for his safe return. Billy cried when she tried to get him to leave with me when we reached the steps of the church, so she took him with her. I still remember them standing under their umbrella on the steps, giving me a little wave."
She stopped again, her eyes filling with tears.
"Please, I didn't know this would be so painful for you," Leila said. "Perhaps you'd rather tell me another time."
"No, no, I'll be all right. All of this happened almost fifty years ago. You'd think I'd be able to talk about it."
"Time might heal our wounds, but that doesn't mean we forget how much they hurt in the first place."
Alice smiled. "Something tells me you know something about being wounded, Leila. Well, you may be right. Still, I owe you an explanation for my brother's odd behavior.
"So, on that night, I went home alone in the rain. It had been raining hard for a couple of days. I waited, but they didn't come back. Finally, I put on my raingear and walked back to the church. There were firemen and emergency vehicles blocking the street. The roof on the church had collapsed. It had been a flat roof. The scuppers on the drains from the roof had been plugged by leaves, and the water built up on it until it just gave way. Chloe and Billy were killed."
Alice shook her head. "I identified their bodies. They took them away. I sat there, next to the place they had been killed, unable to move, getting drenched by rain. I kept wondering how I could possibly tell Jonathan about what had happened. A policeman tried to get me to go home. I saw one of Chloe's boots; I guess it had come off of her when they pulled her body out. I picked it up, and a piece of stained glass that lay next to it. Don't ask me why. I didn't know then, and I don't know now. The policeman walked me home. On the porch step, he handed me Jonathan's pocket watch and little bag of marbles. Billy had been carrying them."
After a moment, Leila said, "And Jonathan? What became of him?"
"He was devastated, of course. I worried for a while that I would lose him, too. He wasn't quite recovered when he returned, and with Chloe and Billy gone, he just didn't seem to have the will to live. He pulled through, though. The war workers who lived here were laid off and moved on, and he moved back into the house. He went back to the store and went on with his life. He began to talk to me more about Chloe and his son, seemed able to cherish their memory instead being beaten down by it."
"You said Chloe was his first wife. Did he marry again?"
"Yes. Not right away, mind you. About fifteen years later, he met another woman. Monica."
She said the name with obvious distaste.
"You didn't like her."
"Not in the least. She was an Amazon of a woman, and bossy to boot. But Jonathan was lonely, and had been for years. And I think she appealed to him on some hmm, basic level, we'll say. He was turning forty, and she made him feel, well, virile.
"Just before Jonathan and Monica were married, Jonathan told me that he was going hide all of his reminders of Chloe and Billy from his new wife. He said Monica was insanely jealous of their memory, which he couldn't understand."
"Of course. Monica could see for herself that Jonathan's heart still belonged to his first wife. How could she compete with a memory?"
"But Jonathan was aware of her jealousy?"
"Yes, even Jonathan could see that. He told me she had destroyed his favorite photo of Chloe. He decided he wanted to keep his reminders where Monica couldn't harm them. Now, thirty years later, you've found the place where he hid them. Where were they?"
"Beneath the loveseat."
Alice looked back to the corner of the garden where the loveseat had been. "I should have guessed. You've had the pieces taken away?"
"Yes, I'm sorry if it was special to you in some way."
"No, not to me. But it was to Jonathan. He used to sit there with Chloe. An extravagance for newlyweds, but the house had come to him furnished by my uncle, so that loveseat helped them to make the place their own. In much the way you have, with this garden. Jonathan would have loved this garden."
"How was the loveseat broken?"
Alice laughed. "That was the time Monica went too far. They weren't married for more than a year or two when they started having problems. She'd throw tantrums, and he just withdrew more and more from her. He'd come out to the garden.
"One day, Jonathan was sitting on the loveseat, doubtless remembering happier times. Monica came striding across the yard, carrying a sledgehammer."
"Yes, a big old sledgehammer. She lifted it up over her head and brought it down with all her might. Jonathan barely got out of the way in time. Busted the loveseat in half."
"Was she trying to kill him?"
"Jonathan told me he didn't believe she meant to harm him, but I don't think he was certain of that. In any case, they separated, and she went off to live with a sister in some other state. He divorced her. He was disappointed, but he didn't seem overly bitter. Said that maybe he'd caused it by hanging on to his memories of Chloe. He lived here by himself until he died, about a year ago now. I miss him."
Alice looked away for a moment, then turned back to Leila.
"In the last ten years he was pretty much crippled up by arthritis, and he couldn't take care of this yard. You've made it beautiful again, you've brought it back to life. As I've said, it would make Jonathan proud."
"Thank you. It sounds strange, but I'm sorry I didn't get to know him."
"You would have liked him. I think he would be quite happy that you are the one who came to live here. I think Chloe and Billy would be, too."
They chatted for a while, and then Leila brought out a small box and loaded Jonathan's mementos into it.
"After all your hard work, you should keep something for yourself," Alice said. "I know they're rather silly little treasures, but are you sure there's nothing here you'd like to have?"
"They aren't so silly after all, are they? And they've been buried together for all these years. I wouldn't want to separate them."
"So, you are sentimental after all." Alice smiled. "Don't look so surprised, Leila. When you bought this old house, I wondered about you. You seemed so business-like, so self-possessed, so emotionless. But why, I asked myself, would such a modern person want such an old house? I don't know who made you believe that feelings don't matter, but they were very wrong."
Leila looked out across the yard. "You know, Alice, until I moved here and worked on this garden, I don't think I would have been able to understand that." And before she knew it, Leila had told Alice the story of Sam and Marietta.
Alice listened patiently. "This Marietta sounds a lot like Monica. A perfectly dreadful girl. But I'm not sure Sam has forgotten you any more than Jonathan forgot Chloe. I think Sam just needs to wake up and realize that you're a person with feelings. It sounds as if you've been more like a mother, or perhaps another male friend, than a partner to him. The next time you see him, don't be afraid to let him know you have feelings. And if he can't respond to them, find a man who can."
Leila laughed and thanked her.
Alice gave her a hug, and carrying the box of treasures, took her leave.
Leila made a big bowl of soup for dinner, went to bed and slept soundly.
The next day was a work day. She noticed that for some reason, men in the office were paying attention to her. She wondered if they had paid attention before, without her being aware of it, or if something about her had changed.
Later that evening, in line at the grocery store, a good-looking man stood just ahead of her. He smiled at her. When she smiled back, he spoke to her, laughing with her about an article featured on the cover of a tabloid. Suddenly, she heard a familiar voice calling her name.
She turned to see Sam and Marietta at the next checkout stand. She waved, and turned back to talk to the man who had been flirting with her. "Friend of yours?" he asked.
"Former boyfriend," she whispered, as the checker handed the man his change.
The man looked back at Sam and Marietta and shook his head. "He's crazy," he whispered back, and to her shock, leaned over and kissed her cheek. "Goodbye, Leila," he said loudly, "Don't forget our date!" He winked and smiled as he walked out with his groceries.
Leila blushed deeply, but then smiled to herself. The checker had to announce the amount she owed twice before Leila returned her attention to matters at hand. As she pushed her cart from the store, Sam came up beside her.
"Who was that?" he demanded.
"The man with whom you just made a spectacle of yourself. The one who kissed you in the store. Or are there so many men kissing you in public that it is no longer a memorable experience?"
"Really, Sam, I don't think it's any of your concern."
Before he could answer, they heard Marietta from behind them. "Sam!" she wailed as she tried to catch up to them with her own cart. "Sam, get over here and help me."
"Your master's voice," Leila said, and started to load her groceries into her car.
"What's that supposed to mean?" he said angrily.
"Leila, is this fellow bothering you?"
She turned to see the man from the store. He had pulled up next to them and rolled down his window.
Sam looked so dismayed, it was all she could do not to laugh out loud. "No, he's an old friend," she said to the man. "He was just going back to his car to help his girlfriend."
They all turned to see Marietta stomp her foot in impatience.
"Girlfriend?" the man said. "I only see his daughter."
"Oh, no," Leila said, unable to stop the laugh. "That's his girlfriend."
"Now see here " Sam began, but fell silent as the man opened his car door and stood next to it. He was at least six inches taller than Sam.
He extended a hand. "David Kerr," he said amiably.
Sam shook the hand awkwardly. "Sam Barrington," he mumbled. To Leila, he said, "I'll call you later," and excused himself.
"Thanks for the rescue," Leila said to David, when Sam had left.
"A pleasure. As your knight in shining armor, do I deserve to know your last name, Leila?"
"Leila Anderson," she said. "It was going to be Leila Barrington before that sweet young thing happened along."
"You're hopelessly stuck on him, aren't you?" he asked.
"I'm afraid so."
"Well, we're two peas in a pod. My ex-wife shops here with a fellow I call 'Junior' on Tuesdays. If you want to return the favor, I'll meet you here tomorrow night at six."
Leila laughed and agreed to see him there the next evening. She said goodnight and whistled as she drove home.
On Thursday night, Leila invited Alice Grayson to dinner. They giggled like schoolgirls over Leila's recounting of the last three days. Tuesday night, David's ex-wife had ignored the young man she was dating, nearly pushed Leila aside and said flat out that she missed David and would like to see him for dinner sometime soon.
David had thanked Leila, and they promised to keep one another posted on their progress.
On Wednesday, Sam had stopped by her office to ask her to go to lunch, an unprecedented event.
"I'm worried about you, Leila," he had said.
"How well do you know this David Kerr?"
"Not well at all."
"That's what I mean! And you kissed him in the store!"
"I believe he kissed me."
"You're mincing words and you know it. Okay, so you were kissed, but you allowed it. Right in front of everybody! That's so unlike you!"
"Maybe I've changed, Sam."
He sulked in silence for a moment, then said, "I'm not sure I like the change. I liked you the way you were before."
"You dumped me the way I was before."
"Leila! That's an unkind way of putting things."
"It was an unkind way of doing things."
He had the good grace to look guilty, but said nothing.
"It's true, Sam. You all but said I was passionless. And I can see why you thought so. It's my fault, really. I hope Marietta gives you all the passion you can bear."
"There's more to life than passion."
"Really? Such as what?"
"Stability, reliability, companionship."
"Don't forget faithfulness."
He turned red and looked away. After a moment he said quietly, "I really hurt you, didn't I?"
"Don't be, Sam. Thanks to you, I have a whole new life."
"No, probably not with David."
He seemed about to say something, but he hesitated. She decided not to wait for him to make up his mind to tell her what it was. "I'd better get back to work, Sam."
"Yes, I suppose so," he answered distractedly.
As they stood outside the door to her office building, he suddenly hugged her, nearly throwing her off balance. "Listen, I'm really quite fond of you, Leila. We are friends, aren't we?"
"Of course," she said, freeing herself from his embrace. "Goodbye, Sam."
"Excellent!" Alice exclaimed. "Although I'll warn you, Leila. Watch out for Marietta. From what you've told me, she won't take any of this very lightly."
Leila invited Alice to come over on Saturday afternoon. "I'll be planting the roses in the back corner. I called my friend, Arnie, and ordered another loveseat. He's going to try to find one similar to the old one. He thinks he can have one here by Monday, so I need to get the roses in place."
On Friday, Sam came by her office at lunch time again. Leila had already agreed to have lunch with some of her coworkers, and summoning all of her willpower, she told Sam she would not be able to join him. "Let me take you to dinner, then," he said.
She hesitated. "What about Marietta?"
"She's got an aerobics class until ten. She has aerobics every night," he added glumly.
"All right, I'll meet you for dinner. Where?"
"Café Camillia at eight?"
She smiled. The restaurant was a favorite of hers, and Sam knew it. "Fine."
That evening, she put on a rather daring dress, one she had bought on impulse. Impulse, she thought, liking what she saw in the mirror. What a heady new feeling this occasional obedience to impulse had given her! When she arrived at the restaurant, Sam was already there, nervously wringing his hands. When he saw her, he looked as if someone had just sent enough electricity through him to light Manhattan.
"Yes, Sam, what's the matter?"
"You you look lovely."
"Why, thank you."
But throughout dinner, Sam hardly spoke a word. He looked unhappy. She began to think that the whole evening was a miserable failure. Maybe he was wishing he hadn't invited her to dinner.
He looked up at her, startled.
"Sam, are you regretting this?"
"Oh. No, not at all."
"You don't seem very happy."
"Why? Have I done something wrong?"
"No, I have."
"What do you mean?"
He shook his head. "Forgive me, Leila. I haven't been good company this evening. I've got some thinking to do." He glanced at his watch. "Marietta will be home soon. I'd better go." He motioned for the waiter and paid the check.
He walked her to her car. Suddenly, he said, "Leila, do you still care for me?"
"Yes, Sam. You're still my friend."
"I don't mean as a friend. I mean, do you think you could still care for me?"
She smiled at the anxiousness in his voice. "I think you already know I do."
"What do you see in me, Leila? I've cheated on you, broken our engagement, been a cad. I didn't want to admit it before, but I have been."
"I agree. But I think it has been for the best. We each had things to learn, didn't we?"
"I'm just afraid the tuition may have cost me too much."
"Talk to Marietta. I admit I don't like her much, but she deserves to know how you really feel. Then come and tell me how you feel about me. But not until then, all right?"
He nodded, then watched as she drove off.
Leila had just finished mixing a huge bag of mulch into the garden soil when she heard the sound of the gate opening. At first, she thought it was Alice Grayson, but she turned to see an odd vision of Marietta, taller than usual, gliding toward her. Then she realized Marietta was on skates. Of course, Leila thought, the latest fitness craze. They were a fancy, in-line pair, with fluorescent pink wheels. As Marietta drew closer, Leila saw that her face was a hard mask of fury, and she was flying toward Leila like a Valkyrie on Rollerblades.
"You bitch! You miserable old bitch!" she shouted, and tried to grab on to Leila.
Frightened, Leila dropped the shovel and started to run toward the house, but the skating Marietta was faster. Leila was amazed at the other woman's agility. Marietta caught hold of Leila's hair and yanked hard. Leila came to a halt and Marietta slammed into her. Leila toppled to the ground, landing facedown in the dirt. Marietta fell on top of her. In no time flat, she had her hands around Leila's throat, choking her.
"Sam is mine! I won't let you have him!"
Leila couldn't breathe. Her head pounded as she tried to pry Marietta's fingers from her throat. But Marietta was strong, and her fingers didn't budge.
"Let her go," Leila heard a voice say, but everything around her was swimming out of focus.
"No! I'm younger, I'm prettier, I'm stronger "
"You're dead," the voice said, and Leila heard the shovel ring out once again. She fell into darkness.
Sam and Leila were sitting on the loveseat. Two rosebushes grew on one side, a third on the other.
"Marietta still hasn't come back," Sam said. "I think she's left me for good."
"I wouldn't be surprised if you never see her again," Leila said.
"I suppose you're right. She went absolutely insane when I told her that I had decided to beg you to take me back. The language she used! Called me things I never imagined anyone would ever call me. And when Miss Grayson called that evening to tell me that Marietta had come by to attack you like that "He looked at the bruises on her throat and winced. "I'm so sorry, Leila. You should have called me sooner."
"I didn't want to worry you. I'm fine now, really."
"Anyway, I'm glad Miss Grayson called me. I guess it was while I was over here with you that Marietta cleared all of her things out of our old apartment."
"Alice was a great help that day," Leila said, thinking of the apartment key that was now in a jar of buttons. She leaned back against Sam, who put his arms around her. "I'm glad you came over to see me."
"Of course! You needed me."
They sat in silence for a while, Sam holding Leila close, amazed by how strongly he had felt about her lately. Oh, he had thought of her often during the few months he had spent with Marietta, but somehow, something had changed in Leila since she had lived in this old house. He looked at the riot of colors around him. Amazing, he thought. And this loveseat. That seemed so sentimental, so unlike the old Leila.
"You planted this garden yourself?" he asked in wonder.
"Yes, all except this corner. Alice Grayson helped me with this one."
"Ah, that explains the loveseat."
Leila merely smiled.
It seemed to Sam that he had never desired her more.
Copyright © 2002 by Jan Burke
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