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"I know Jean Jacques would send word if he could. Something must be terribly wrong."
"What's wrong is Mr. Villette seduced you, stole your money, and then he abandoned you." Aunt Kibble lowered her embroidery hoop to her lap and reached for the palmetto fan to swat at a cloud of gnats. "Everyone in the county knows this except you. You refuse to admit the truth."
Juliette folded her arms across her chest and leaned against the porch post, fixing her gaze on the dirt road that curved past Aunt Kibble's house. Nine long months ago, Jean Jacques had ridden away at one o'clock. Therefore, he would return at one o'clock, but only if she was waiting for him on the porch.
And he would return only if she set a place for him at every meal.
Only if she brushed her hair one hundred stokes.
Jean Jacques would come back if she always wore the blue garter that she'd been wearing when they met.
Heaven help her. Raising a hand, she rubbed her forehead. When had she started performing these silly rituals? What lunacy made her believe that standing on the porch at one o'clock possessed some kind of magic that would bring Jean Jacques back to her?
"He's my husband, not a seducer. He didn't steal anything, I lent him money because he was temporarily embarrassed. And he didn't abandon me. He rode out of here with the intention of finding and buying us a home of our own."
Aunt Kibble waved the fan so rapidly that the tendrils of brown and gray hair fluttered up from her forehead. "This is what comes from marrying in haste. I know you don't want to hear it, Juliette, but there are scheming men who marry women for their money."
"So you've been telling me for years." Juliette held her gaze on the road. A wagon had passed, and two riders. But no Jean Jacques. He wasn't coming home today.
"This time you lost your head." Setting aside the fan, Aunt Kibble frowned and ran her thumb along a line of embroidered rosebuds twining across the pillowcase hem. "Villette is a confidence man, and confidence men are smooth talkers. He talked you into such a fever that you wouldn't listen to reason."
Each time they had this conversation (which was more and more frequently of late) Juliette felt like screaming and tearing her hair and hammering her fists against something breakable.
But her mother had always said: If you can't be a beauty, you must strive to be an impeccable lady. Juliette's self-worth depended upon being a lady, so she didn't have tantrums.
She didn't speak to strangers, didn't associate with the wrong sort of people. She didn't rush about or act in haste; her movements were restrained and graceful. She wouldn't dream of being loud or assertive or immodest. She was always kind to those less fortunate than herself; she put the wishes and comforts of others before her own needs. She considered herself a perfect lady, one whom other women in Linda Vista could seek to emulate.
In the tradition of the gently bred, she had spent a lifetime doing what she ought and squelching any selfish impulse to do what she wanted. When a conflict arose between her personal desires and the proper course, she set her wishes aside and never failed to act in the proper manner.
Only once had she closed her eyes to propriety and followed her heart. And she hadn't regretted her marriage. When Jean Jacques placed his hands on her waist and gazed into her eyes, the shoulds and oughts evaporated like fog in the rays of the sun.
"Never in a month of Sundays would I have believed you'd fall prey to a man's sweet talk. Or that you'd agree to an impulsive marriage."
Juliette waved her hand at the gnats that pestered her now. Usually a cooling ocean breeze flowed down the slopes of the Klamath Mountains and carried away the insects, but today the summer air hung still and shimmered with heat.
"Is it so hard for you to believe that a man could love me?" She twisted her wedding ring on her finger, the ring that had first belonged to Jean Jacques's grandmother and then to his mother. He wouldn't have given her an heirloom if he hadn't intended to return.
"Oh, Juliette!" Distress widened Aunt Kibble's eyes. "You have many, many fine qualities. But you didn't know Mr. Villette long enough for him to discover your qualities. Therefore, his insistence on rushing to the altar must have been motivated by a reason less noble than love."
Juliette noticed that her aunt did not define those many, many fine qualities. And far from being reassuring, Aunt Kibble seemed to underscore the notion that any man who proposed a swift marriage must be in love with Juliette's inheritance.
Despite a determined resistance on Juliette's part, her aunt's oft-stated condemnation had begun to carve small inroads on her mind. Was it really possible that Jean Jacques had been more interested in her money than in Juliette herself? Could she have been a victim rather than an angel as he had claimed?
She let the questions torment her all afternoon, as she had done so often of late. It seemed that all she did anymore was perform the stupid rituals that she hoped would bring Jean Jacques back to her--and think about every minute they had spent together.
The thing was, Jean Jacques couldn't have known about her inheritance. He has been in Linda Vista for only two days when Juliette collided with him in the doorway of the post office. Meeting him had been the result of serendipity, not of calculation.
All right, he might have somehow learned about Linda Vista's wealthiest spinster, but she couldn't imagine how that would have happened. And yes, he might have lain in wait for her at the post office--as Aunt Kibble believed--but Juliette had no regular time when she called for the mail. Moreover, Mr. Albertson, the postmaster, would have noticed a man loitering for any length of time and would have ordered him to leave.
It wasn't the money.
Jean Jacques claimed that he fell in love with her the minute he steadied her after the collision, and Juliette believed him. She had gazed up and observed an expression she had never seen before on a man's face. He looked dazed, confounded. His dark eyes had glowed with desire and--dare she say it? --love. As astonishing as it seemed, already he had begun to love her.
She had to believe it was love at first sight exactly as Jean Jacques had claimed. The alternative was to accept that she had been tricked and manipulated, lied to and used.
After tidying her hair for dinner, she studied her pale face in the vanity mirror.
Jean Jacques had whispered that her gray eyes reminded him of shining pewter. He had made her feel pretty. Now, as she looked into the glass, she remembered herself as she had been in the glow of her husband's admiration.
During the brief period of their marriage, a constant smile had curved her lips--lips made rosy by kissing. He'd made her laugh. And oh, how he'd teased her, poking fun at the ladylike restriction that defined her life. In bed, he had swept away all modesty and inhibitions and made her forget they had ever been important. In bed she had been anything but a lady.
A rush of heat scalded her throat, and she pressed her palms to her cheeks.
It couldn't have been just the money.
Following dinner, Aunt Kibble resumed the afternoon's conversation. "How long are you going to pretend that Mr. Villette will return? A year? Five years? The rest of your life?"
Juliette placed her hands in her lap and turned her wedding ring around her finger. "Maybe he was struck on the head. I read a book in which that happened. When the man regained consciousness, he had no memory of the heroine."
"Amnesia occurs very rarely in real life, Juliette. I sincerely doubt that Mr. Villette is off spending your money with no memory of how he got it."
"But it could have happened," she insisted, leaning forward and wanting Aunt Kibble to agree.
"He's a confidence man. That explains his absence and his silence." Aunt Kibble waited until after Howard had served coffee and withdrawn from the dining room before she continued. "For the sake of discussion, let us suppose there are three possibilities. Mr. Villette may be dead. He may be wandering around now with amnesia. Or he may have abandoned you and is now wooing his next victim." She lowered a lump of sugar into her coffee. "Where does that leave you?"
"I don't know," Juliette whispered, twisting her hands.
Aunt Kibble leaned back in her chair. "The truth is, you don't know much about this man."
"But I do! First, he's second-generation French." When he whispered her name his soft accent made the word sound like a thrilling endearment. "He has no surviving family. He's a successful businessman who owns an import-export company." When Aunt Kibble's expressive eyebrows soared, Juliette waved her hand in an exasperated gesture. "Large amounts of his fortune are tied up in inventory. That's the nature of the import-export business."
"Is it really?"
Juliette ignored her aunt's raised eyebrow. "Jean Jacques owns two companies, one in San Francisco and one in Seattle. He felt we should locate our home in Oregon, midway between his business interests."
"And how did you feel about that decision? To my knowledge, you've never stepped foot beyond the county lines. But you're willing to pack up and move to Oregon? Frankly, Juliette, this astonishes me."
The notion of leaving everything safe and familiar had alarmed and frightened her. A great deal of persuasion had been required for Jean Jacques to overcome her resistance.
But Jean Jacques possessed a gift for persuasion. "Darling, there is a big world out there, and you have seen none of it. You haven't walked on a beach and felt the sand between your toes. You've never caught a snowflake on your tongue. You have never listened to the noisy heartbeat of a large city or ridden in a streetcar." He had placed his hands on her shoulders and gazed into her eyes. "I want you to experience all these things and more. Seeing a bit of the wide world will change you in ways you cannot now imagine."
He intended to begin her transformation by building her a magnificent home overlooking the ocean. It was time to leave Aunt Kibble. Every woman needed a home of her own. Every couple required privacy. A new marriage deserved a new beginning. It would be difficult to manage his business from a small town like Linda Vista.
Gradually, the weight of reason had toppled her objections. She had agreed to a home perched on the coast of Oregon. And then she had written a bank draft--a loan, he insisted--and he had ridden away.
"Moving to Oregon will be difficult," she conceded. Jean Jacques had worn away her protests, but not her anxiety or her fear of travel and the unknown. Even Jean Jacques could not completely convert her timidity to boldness.
"Is it necessary to point out that nothing he told you about himself has been verified? You have only Mr. Villette's word that he's a wealthy businessman, and that his fortune was tied up in-- what was it? --inventory. He could have invented everything he told you."
She didn't believe that. In any case, she knew the important things. She knew that Jean Jacques was a man who savored every minute, who lived each day as if it were his last and best. She'd never known anyone who took such joy in small things. He rhapsodized about the shine of sunlight in her hair, saw poetry in her earlobe. He could recite in two languages, and he liked to read aloud before sleeping. He teased about her attention to etiquette, but she hadn't minded.
Their wedding night proved his capacity for patience and tenderness. In the ensuing weeks, she had observed his unselfish commitment always to put her pleasure before his own. Most important, Jean Jacques Villette had made her feel cherished and loved, pretty and interesting and desirable, and younger than her twenty-nine years.
These were the truths that mattered. Not whether his background and his bank account measured up to the impossible standards that had turned Juliette into a spinster.
"I wish he would come home."
"He never will, darling. The sooner you accept that, the sooner you can get on with your life."
But she couldn't go on as if her marriage had never happened. She had to do something. Waiting for him was driving her crazy.
"Its time to begin divorce proceedings," Aunt Kibble said, pouring more coffee. "As I've been advising you to do for weeks."
Juliette drew a breath and stiffened her backbone.
"Respectable people do not divorce." She paused and then made herself state her decision aloud. "I've considered what to do for weeks, and I've reached the conclusion that my only course is to search for Jean Jacques. Perhaps he wrote, sending for me, but his letter was lost. Or he may be lying in a hospital bed, horribly injured, wondering why I haven't come."
Aunt Kibble's mouth dropped, and she stared. "Are you saying that you intend to travel to Oregon?"
Juliette shrank from the word travel and the images of change it conjured. She didn't like new experiences. "I'll follow my husband's most likely route. If that takes me all the way to Oregon, then I suppose that's where I'll end." Merely talking about leaving all that was safe and familiar made her feel slightly ill.
"I can't agree to this foolishness," Aunt Kibble said after a moment. "If your mother were alive, she would strenuously disapprove."
"With due respect, Aunt, I don't require permission to search for my husband." Aside from announcing her marriage, this was the bravest thing she had ever said to Aunt Kibble.
"You do require a companion," Aunt Kibble reminded her sharply. "But I'm too old to go traipsing around the countryside on a fool's errand. I won't do it, Juliette."
She had anticipated this response and steeled herself for what must follow. "I can't stay here and do nothing because I lack a traveling companion. If I must, I'll search for my husband alone." Everything in her shrank from this decision, but there was no longer a choice. She had to know what had happened to Jean Jacques.
Aunt Kibble gasped and pressed a hand to her mouth. "You're making another dreadful mistake. Haven't you learned that following the dictates of your heart instead of the rules of propriety only leads to disaster?"
Juliette could not bear not knowing. When she stood on the porch at one o'clock watching the road, she felt as if she were losing her mind.
As for what he mother might have said--She had worried over that question for weeks. Certainly a respectable woman did not chase after a man, not even if the man who needed chasing was her husband. She suspected her mother would have advised her to hold her head high and live out her days pretending that her husband would return at any moment.
Over the last nine months Juliette had done just that, but she couldn't follow that path any longer. Her bone-deep need to know gave her the daring to flout propriety and travel alone.
But, heaven above. The world beyond Linda Vista was alien and frightening, peopled with strangers who didn't know or care about Juliette March Villette.
The outside world wouldn't know that her needlepoint had won a blue ribbon at the fair last Fourth of July. Strangers wouldn't care that when she was twenty, she'd been chosen to carry one end of the memorial quilt in the Founder's Day parade. No on
From the Paperback edition.