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"Mama, there's someone coming up to the house." Claire leaned a little closer to the window, peering out.
"Don't shout, dear," Emily Winters admonished her daughter as she came out of her room down the hall, adjusting the pearl strand around her neck. She was an attractive middle-aged woman, gray beginning to intermingle with the dark blond in her hair, which she wore swept up and curled into a careful French roll on the back of her head.
The resemblance between Mrs. Winters and her daughter was clear, though Claire's hair was a soft brown and hung in a long, sleek bob that stopped just short of her shoulders. Their faces held the same elegant beauty, and Claire's eyes were the identical shade of blue.
Emily's mouth tightened in disapproval as she saw Claire in front of the window, holding the curtain aside to peer out. "Don't stand in front of the window gaping, Claire. It's common."
Not appearing "common," Claire knew from long experience with her mother, was Mrs. Winters's chief concern. "I was just bored," Claire explained.
"So I looked out. And I saw someone stop in front of our house."
"Who? It seems an odd time." Emily glanced at her slim gold watch.
"I don't know. I've never seen him before." Then, with the spark of mischief that frequently got her into trouble with her mother, Claire added, "But he looks awfully cute."
"Really, Claire." As expected, her mother frowned.
The doorbell rang downstairs, and Claire turned, starting toward the staircase.
"Let Bonnie get it, dear," Mrs. Winters admonished. "No doubt it's just the Fuller brush man."
"Bonnie's busy cooking," Claire replied, already running lightly down the steps. She paused to flash a grin backat her mother. "And he's too cute to be the Fuller brush man."
She continued down the stairs, and, with a sigh, Mrs. Winters followed her at a more dignified pace.
The man was even taller than he had looked coming up the walk, Claire realized as she opened the door and saw him waiting on their doorstep. He was also, she thought with a little jolt, even better looking.
He was half-turned away, gazing at their yard, and he swung back at the sound of the door opening. His eyes were a bright clear green, startling under the straight black slashes of his eyebrows. In the moment before he smiled, Claire had an impression of a thin, angular face, cheekbones pressing sharply against tanned skin, and a firm jaw and chin. Then his lips curled up into a smile, and Claire felt as if her heart did a flip.
He stared back at her, his automatic smile freezing on his face, then suddenly he seemed to come to himself, and he said, somewhat tentatively. "IMrs.I mean, I'm looking for the Winters's house."
There was, Claire thought, a hint of East Texas in his speech, and his voice drifted up a little in questioning at the end of this sentence.
"I'm Claire Winters."
"Claire?" He said her name as if he knew her, and his eyebrows lifted as though surprised. "I'm sorry." He grinned a little ruefully. "You must think I'm crazy. I justI was picturing you as a scrawny kid. But of course you've grown up by now."
"Do I know you?" Claire frowned, trying to put a little of her mother's frost into her tone. But she found it hard to do; there was simply something too engaging about this man's smile. Somehow she felt as if she ought to know him even though she was certain she had never seen him before.
"No, ma'am. But I feel like I know you. I'm Jackson Murphy. I knew your brother Dennis. We were in the Army together "
At the mention of her brother, Claire felt the old familiar tug at her heart and the beginnings of tears in her eyes. But she smiled, recognizing the name. "Jack Murphy!"
He smiled back, his eyes looking straight into hers, warm and, like hers, touched a little with sadness. "Yes, ma'am. That's me. Jack Murphy."
"Come in." Claire stepped back to let him enter, turning to the side to look at her mother.
Mrs. Winters had stopped on the last step of the staircase, one hand on the railing and the other at her pearls, seemingly frozen into place, her eyes large and almost frightened.
"Mama, look, it's Dennis's friend. Jack Murphy. You remember Dennis writing us about him."
"Yes, of course." Mrs. Winters gave a brief, mechanical smile and moved down into the entryway. "How do you do, Mr. Murphy?"
"Ma'am." He nodded politely at Emily. "Iplease accept my condolences. Dennis was a a good man. A good friend."
This time the gesture that touched Emily's lips could scarcely be called a smile. "Thank you. Well it it's been a long time, now."
Mrs. Winters turned toward Claire. "Why don't you show Mr. Murphy into the parlor, dear? I'll tell Bonnie to bring us some iced tea. You will have a glass of iced tea with us, won't you, Mr. Murphy?"
"Thank you, that sounds very nice, ma'am."
Mrs. Winters turned and headed back toward the kitchen. Claire pivoted in the opposite direction, crossing to the formal living room at the front of the house. She knew that her mother was less concerned with getting refreshments than with taking a moment to collect herself. The mention of Dennis still had the power to throw her, even after five years.
"I'm sorry," Jack said as he followed her into the living room. "I hope I didn't upset your mother."
"No, please, don't worry yourself about it. As Mother said, it's been a long time. It's just that well, I guess it sort of takes you by surprise nowadays, hearing his name. After so long."
He nodded, looking uncomfortable.
Claire smiled, gesturing toward one of the chairs arranged in a conversational grouping at right angles to the couch. "Really, don't worry. It's fine. Please, sit down."
"Sorry for acting like such a dolt at the door," he went on, his grin recovering its easy charm. "Obviously I knew you must be grown after all this time. It's just that Den always called you his kid sister "
"I was fifteen when he enlisted. And he was always annoyingly big brother-ish." Claire's wistful smile took the sting out of her words.
She glanced toward the mantel, lined with framed photographs, then went across to pick up one of them and bring it back to Murphy. "This is the two of us. That's when Den was sixteen."
Claire, too, looked down at the silver-framed picture in Jack's hands. Dennis stared back at them, slender and grave, the suit he wore oddly making him look even younger than his age. Beside him was Claire, also in her Sunday best, white gloves on her demurely folded hands. She had been, she thought, all eyes and knobby knees, still a child though she was trying her best to look grown-up.
"Yep. Didn't often look so serious, though," Murphy said, studying the pictures.
"True." Claire smiled. Her brother had always been lighthearted, a golden boy who glided through life with a joke and a smile. If he had suffered the usual pangs of adolescence, Claire had not known about it.
"You look like him, a little." Murphy handed back the picture, and once again his grin flashed. "Lot prettier, though."
Claire tried to ignore the little leap of her heart as she took the photograph and placed it back on the mantel. It was silly to let a meaningless compliment fluster her. It wasn't as if she were a young girl, not knowing what to do about a little innocent flirtation. She had graduated from college, after all, and she hadn't exactly been dateless the whole time she had been there. Jack Murphy was not the first man to tell her she was attractive. Not even the first handsome man to do so.
However, if she was honest, she had to admit that he was one of the few who had made her pulse speed up just by smiling at her.
Feeling a little gauche and aware of his eyes on her, Claire walked back to her seat on the sofa. She looked at her hands, then cleared her throat and looked up at him. She could feel the pulse beating in the hollow of her neck, and she hoped he could not see it.
"Here we are." Her mother entered the room, carrying a tray, and the awkward moment was broken.
With relief, Claire turned to her and stood up to take the tray, but Jack beat her to it, jumping up and reaching out to take the silver tray from Mrs. Winters's grasp and set it down carefully on the coffee table in front of the couch.
"Bonnie had just made a fresh pitcher, so we are in luck," Emily Winters said, smiling in her usual coolly polite way.
Her mother had recovered, Claire could see, from the momentary jolt of being reminded of her son, and she was once again in her gracious lady mode. It had always been a role her mother played; she enjoyed her position as a social leader in their small city. In recent years, however, she had become more and more entrenched in the role until it seemed to Claire that Mrs. Winters was now more country club matron than the mother Claire had grown up with.
"So you knew our Dennis," Mrs. Winters went on smoothly, offering their visitor one of the glasses of tea.
"Yes, ma'am. We were in the '36th' together. Whole war."
Mrs. Winters' smile remained firmly in place. "How nice," she said as if he had just said they had been next-door neighbors or played tennis every Saturday morning.
"So you were in Italy together," Claire said.
"Yes, ma'am. And France."
"The Battle of the Bulge?"
"Now, Claire." Mrs. Winters's face acquired a brittle look. "We mustn't drag our guest through all his old war experiences."
"Oh, I don't mind, ma'am," Murphy hastened to assure her. "If you wanted to hear about Dennis and"
"That's perfectly all right," Mrs. Winters said in a politely remote tone.
Jack Murphy looked a little nonplussed, as though he was not sure what the older woman's statement meant, but he had no time to speak before Claire's mother moved on to say, "Why don't you tell us about yourself? Are you a Texas boy, as well?"
"Yes, ma'am. East Texas, little town called Big Sandy."
"What a quaint name. You spent your whole life there?"
"Yes, ma'am. Until the war came along."
"And was your father a farmer?"
"No, ma'am. He worked in the oil fields most of the time. Lots of oil around there. Van Zandt County. Tyler."
"I see. How interesting."
The corner of Jack's mouth quirked up. "Well, I have to admit it never seemed too interesting to me. At least, not the working in the field part. Oil, now, that's a different story. I've been at UT since I got discharged, studying petroleum engineering."
"My. You seem to be an ambitious young man."
"Well, the GI Bill seemed like too good a deal to waste."
"I've been at the university the last four years, too," Claire put in.
"Really?" Murphy looked at her.
"Yes, I graduated this year."
"Well, I'm sorry we never met." Again that trace of amusement touched his mouth. "Though I'm guessing we didn't exactly run in the same circles."
"It's such an enormous school," Mrs. Winters put in. "I always hated for Claire to go to such a large, anonymous sort of place. It seems quite easy to get lost. SMU or Texas Women's College would have"
"Mama " Claire said in the long-suffering tone of one who had heard this argument many times before.
"Yes, I know, dear. At any rate, that's all water under the bridge, and you're home now." She smiled at her daughter.
"So did you graduate this year, Mr. Murphy?" Claire asked.
"Yes, I did. And, please, call me Jack."
"Jack." Claire smiled at him. It seemed far more enjoyable saying his name than the occasion warranted, and she was aware of the faintest tinge of heat along her cheekbones. "And you must call me Claire."
"I'd like that."
"And what do you plan to do now that you've graduated, Mr. Murphy?" Mrs. Winters stuck in, pulling the young man's attention back to her.
"Well, I've already got a job with Hammond Oil. I've been working for them while I've been at school. But first I thought I'd take off a few weeks. See the country. I wanted to drive out to California and spend a few days in Los Angeles, maybe even go up to San Francisco. So I thought, well, I'd come up to Amarillo to get on Route 66 and pay my respects to Dennis's family. He was " He paused. "Well, he was a good man, and I know he'd have wanted me to see you. Tell you anything you might want to know."
"Very considerate of you, I'm sure," Mrs. Winters replied, once again avoiding any mention of her son. "Ah, there I believe I hear Mr. Winters's car in the driveway. He must be home from work. I'm sure he would love to meet you, Mr. Murphy. Why don't you stay and have supper with us?"
"I'd love to meet him, but I wouldn't want to put you out, ma'am," Jack demurred.
"It's no trouble," Claire put in quickly. "Really. Bonnie always fixes more than enough for us, and it won't take a minute to add an extra place."
Claire suspected that her mother's invitation had been made more out of a desire to wriggle out of any more conversation about Denny and his death in the war than out of any real desire to have Jack stay for supper. But Claire had no intention of letting the opportunity slip out of her hands. She did not pause to examine why she felt this way. After all, she was not the sort of girl who went on alert in the presence of any eligible male. But there was something about this man that intrigued her, and she was glad of a chance to talk to him more.
There was the sound of footsteps in the hallway, and a moment later Claire's father strode into the room. A tall man, somewhat stoop-shouldered, he wore a dark three-piece suit and carried a briefcase. Claire rarely pictured him any other way. Alan Winters was an attorney with a thriving civil practice, and he routinely immersed himself in his work, often bringing home material to work on in his study after spending two or three hours with his family.
Claire had always felt closer to her father than to her mother. She had little interest in her mother's pursuits of bridge games and luncheons at the country club.