Read an Excerpt
The Carson Springs Trilogy
Stranger in Paradise Taste of Honey Wish Come True
By Eileen Goudge
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2003 Eileen Goudge
All rights reserved.
How did I end up here? Samantha Kiley wondered. A forty-eight-year-old woman in a peach chiffon dress watching her youngest daughter get married. Wasn't it only a few years ago she'd walked down the same aisle, arm tucked through her father's? Since she'd stood with her babies at the baptismal font? Time doesn't just fly, she thought, it leaves you stranded in places you never expected to find yourself. Nearly two years since Martin's death, yet she still had trouble thinking of herself as a widow, a status conjuring images of the old abuelitas garbed in black who led the candlelight procession up Calle de Navidad each Christmas Eve.
It saddened her, Martin's not being here, but she'd made up her mind she wasn't going to let it spoil the day. She focused instead on the poised young woman at the altar, a vision in ivory taffeta and clouds of white tulle, her honey-colored hair smoothed back in a Grace Kelly-like chignon. My daughter ...
Light streamed from the high clerestory windows flanking the nave, illuminating the altar's carved gilt reredos. Father Reardon, striking in his black cassock and snowy surplice, had turned the page on the Song of Songs and was heading into the choppy waters of the vows. Sam reached for her handkerchief. She'd managed to keep it together throughout the readings—Byron and T. S. Eliot and a passage from Alice's childhood favorite, The Little Prince. Now came the true test ...
"Wesley Leyland Carpenter, do you take this woman to be your lawfully wedded wife, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, as long as you both shall live?"
Sam's gaze rested on Wes. He was a man's man like her father: tall and well built, with a full head of hair the color of case-hardened steel and a startling streak of white down the center of his neatly trimmed black beard. The CEO of a multibillion-dollar cable network, he would provide for her daughter ... never mind that Alice would bristle at the idea. More importantly, he would be good to her. That much was obvious just looking at them.
He was also fifty-four—six years older than Sam, and twenty-eight years his bride's senior.
Because Wes was so perfect in every other way, Sam had swallowed her reservations. Even so, a voice cried in protest, He's old enough to be her father! When Alice was a baby, he had been on his second tour of duty in Vietnam. When he was old she'd be a young woman still. If they had children—and Sam certainly hoped they would—Alice might very well end up raising them on her own, or with the added burden of an ailing husband.
Age isn't everything, she reminded herself. And Alice wasn't exactly a simpering handmaiden. She was an accomplished woman in her own right, a TV producer with a successful talk show to her credit. She stood gazing up at Wes not as if he'd hung the moon, but as if they'd done so together.
Even so, Martin wouldn't have approved of the match, she knew. At the very least he'd have done his best to stall it. And who knows? He might have succeeded. Alice, both girls in fact, had idolized their father. And he, in turn, had lavished on them ...
... everything he withheld from you.
The thought was startling, like a rude noise breaking the hushed stillness. Where had it come from? Hadn't Martin been as devoted a husband as he had been a father?
Sam forced the thought from her mind. At the moment her daughter's happiness was all that counted. And just look at her! Alice seemed to glow like the bank of votive candles lighting the painted wooden Madonna to her right, the only hint of nervousness the faintly discernible quivering of her hands. Behind her veil, her smile was like sunshine finding its way through a morning mist. Her blue eyes fixed on Wes as he responded in a clear baritone: "I do."
Sam blinked hard, the sturdy oak pew, polished by generations of Delarosas, like a firm hand holding her upright. So far, so good. She'd managed to keep the waterworks at bay. Her gaze strayed to her eldest, who wasn't having nearly as much success. Laura, standing alongside her sister, was holding the bouquet tilted askew in one hand while dabbing at her eyes with the other.
Dear Laura. Anything could set her off: sentimental songs and movies, old photos in family albums. No wonder her door was Mecca to every poor, starved creature for miles around. It probably hadn't occurred to her—she was the least vain person Sam knew—that she didn't exactly fit the part of dying swan. Tears had left her olive skin blotchy, and pills of Kleenex dotted the front of her dusty-rose chiffon sheath, a dress chosen by Alice that was as stylish as it was spectacularly unsuited to Laura's less than willowy figure.
Sam's heart went out to her. Not in pity. How could you feel sorry for someone as smart and talented as Laura? Certainly, she wouldn't have been able to manage Delarosa's without her. If only Laura's husband had seen her for who she was, not for what she hadn't been able to give him. Peter's walking out on her had been a crushing blow; a year and a half since the divorce and she still wasn't over it. Sam could only hope she would one day fall in love again and be as happy as ... well, Alice and Wes.
The priest turned his gaze to Alice. "Do you, Alice Imogene Kiley, take this man ..."
Moments later Wes was slipping the ring onto her finger, its four-carat diamond catching the light in a wink of such brilliance Sam didn't have to dab at her eyes to know they were wet. Alice, in turn, slipped onto Wes's finger the plain gold band that had been her father's.
Father Reardon closed his book. "I now pronounce you man and wife. And what God hath joined let no man put asunder." The light from above seemed to radiate from the billowing sleeves of his surplice as he lifted his arms in benediction. With the wry twinkle that, along with his Black-Irish good looks, had inspired some decidedly un-Catholic thoughts in a number of the female parishioners, he turned to Wes. "You may kiss the bride."
A knot formed in Sam's throat as she watched her new son-in-law lift Alice's veil. Their kiss, though chaste, hinted at a passion she could only wonder at. On her own long-ago wedding day had she felt about Martin as her daughter clearly did about Wes? Her most vivid memory of that time was how young they'd been, still in college; young enough for her friends to joke that there must be a baby on the way. Three months later, when she actually did get pregnant, all she could remember was feeling sick to her stomach most of the time. Then, when Laura came, overwhelmed.
It's hard to stay in love, she thought, with a baby crying and the PG&E meter ticking and Joy of Cooking wedged between Logic I and Poets of the Romantic Age. A different kind of flame burns, low and steady like a pilot light, when you've slept alongside the same man for years.
But all that was behind her now. Life without Martin had settled into a pattern. She had her house and business, the music festival committee. There wasn't room for the kind of passion she'd yearned for when young.
The realization brought a trace of melancholy that was quickly dispelled by the Bach cantata now echoing through the church, accompanied by the joyous pealing of campanario bells. As she rose to her feet, Sam felt as if she were being literally borne upward. She caught the eye of the best man, Wes's son, with his blond hair to his shoulders and silver stud in one ear, and thought she saw a touch of irony in the glance he shot her. Ian was only a few years older than Alice. What must he think of all this?
Sam fell into step behind him. Laura and the three bridesmaids, old friends of Alice's, marched ahead of them in a rose-colored column with the bride and groom leading the way. Sam smiled into the blur of beaming faces on either side of her. The church, eternally cool, its hand-hewn timbers imbued over the ages with the scent of smoke and incense, seemed to fold about her like a pair of tired wings.
The church doors swung open, flooding the aisle with sunshine. There was a moment, a single moment before anyone caught up to them, when Alice and Wes stood poised on the steps outside, a fairy-tale prince and princess framed by the arched doorway as if by the gilt edges of a book. Sam's throat tightened. She thought, Is there really such a thing as happily ever after?
Then she was outside, taking her place in the receiving line, extending her hand and cheek to the guests who spilled from the church like excited children from school. Her sister and brother-in-law, Audrey and Grant, with their two college-age sons, Joey and Craig. Her brother, Ray, and his wife, Dolores, all the way from Dallas. Ray and Dolores's two married daughters, followed by elderly Uncle Pernell and Aunt Florine, clutching as tightly to each other as to their respective canes.
Wes's parents, both hale and hearty, with the deep tans of avid golfers, stood to her right—an uncomfortable reminder that her own hadn't lived to see this day. She pictured them as they'd looked in the photo taken on their last anniversary: a tall, thickset man with a balding crown stooping into the camera's range, his cheek pressed to that of his petite, white-haired wife. What would they have thought of this unlikely match?
Sam's best friend stepped up to give her a Chanel-scented squeeze. In her wide-brimmed straw hat and fitted emerald suit Gerry Fitzgerald seemed straight out of a forties movie. No one who didn't know her would ever have guessed she was a former nun.
"You're holding up well," she said.
"Am I?" Sam drew back with a self-conscious little laugh.
"When it's my turn, they'll have to issue a flood warning." That wouldn't be for a while, they both knew. Gerry's daughter, the oldest of her two children, was only fifteen.
Sam's gaze strayed toward Alice, warmly embracing her bridegroom's much stouter older brother, who could have passed for Wes's father. "She's beautiful, isn't she?"
"I could swear I was looking at you on your wedding day."
A long-ago image flashed through Sam's head: a pretty, dark-haired college girl, much too young to be getting married, wearing her mother's satin wedding gown taken in at the waist. She smiled. "I'm glad one of us remembers that far back."
"We're not that old." Gerry shook her head, green eyes sparkling with laughter. With her ex-husband and string of lovers, she liked to joke that she was disgracefully aging.
"Old," Sam said with a wry, downward glance, "is a corsage without a man to pin it on."
Gerry cast a meaningful look at Tom Kemp, in line behind her. "I can think of someone who'd be more than happy to take on the job," she murmured.
Sam felt her face grow warm, then her husband's former partner was stepping up to kiss her cheek. He stood at least a head taller than Sam, who was tall herself, his shoulders slightly stooped from accommodating to a world that wasn't custom-built. A nice-looking man smelling faintly of aftershave, with twin crescents of newly shorn scalp where his square black glasses hooked over his ears. Sunlight skated off their lenses as he drew back to smile at her.
"Congratulations, Sam. You know the saying, you're not losing a daughter ..."
"I'm gaining a son-in-law." She winced inwardly at the triteness of it. But Tom meant well, she knew. "I'm glad you could make it," she said with sincerity. "It wouldn't have been the same without you."
"I just wish it could've been Martin walking her down that aisle." Ray had filled in, but it hadn't been the same.
"So do I."
As if sensing her discomfort, he was quick to add, "You look lovely, Sam." He reddened slightly, as if unused to giving such compliments. "I like your dress. It suits you."
"Thanks, I'm glad you think so."
Secretly, she didn't care for it. She'd been thinking mainly of Alice when she'd picked it out, wanting the spotlight to be on her. Now she wished she'd chosen something a little less ... well, matronly.
Tom looked as if he wanted to linger, but feared he was holding up the line. He touched her elbow, his tall frame curved like a question mark. "Catch up with you later, okay?"
She felt a tiny stab of guilt. What would she have done without Tom these past few years? Holding her hand through the worst of Martin's illness. Guiding her through the blizzard of paperwork after his death. If she'd been avoiding him recently it was only because she was afraid of hurting him. He'd made it clear he wanted more than friendship. Unfortunately, she didn't feel the same way.
Sam turned to find the newlyweds dashing down the steps amid a hail of birdseed—rice, Laura had pointed out, was harmful to birds—Alice with her hem hitched daintily to her ankles to avoid tripping on it and her white veil trailing like vapor in the breeze. A black limousine waited at the curb.
Guests began drifting off to the parking lot. If she didn't leave soon, Sam thought, they would arrive at the house ahead of her. She began to fret. Had Guillermo hung the wedding piñatas? Had Lupe remembered to put lemon slices in the punch?
Relax, a voice soothed. Her live-in housekeeper and gardener had been at Isla Verde almost as long as Saint Peter had been at heaven's gates. They would look after everything. And if a few details got overlooked what difference would it make? Nothing short of an earthquake could spoil this day.
"See you at the house!" Laura called to Sam.
She was helping her elderly housemate down the steps. Maude wore a snugly fitting satin gown nearly the same vintage as she that had left her somewhat hobbled. She paused to lift her hem, revealing matching blue pumps. "Wore my dancing shoes," she said with an impish wink, poking at her nest of ivory hair, in imminent danger of slipping from its pins.
Before Sam could make her own exit, several more people stopped to congratulate her, Father Reardon among them. He clasped her hand warmly. "Will we be seeing you on Sunday?"
Until last night's rehearsal she hadn't set foot in St. Xavier's since her husband's death. Too busy, she told herself. But wasn't there more to it than that? Maybe, she thought uneasily, she was afraid of what too much soul-searching might bring.
"If I'm not too worn out," she hedged with a laugh.
"I promise not to put you to sleep with my sermon." His gray-blue eyes sparkled, but she caught the glint of gentle reproach.
"You never do." Who could fall asleep looking at Father Reardon? "It's just not the same somehow."
His fingers tightened about hers. "All the more reason to come. To quote Robert Browning, 'Earth changes, but thy soul and God stand sure.'s? He let go of her hand, smiling the crooked little smile of a man well versed in matters other than religion. She could see why Gerry and he were such great friends. "End of sermon. Now off with you."
Sam made her way around the back of the church, where her little red Honda was one of the few cars remaining in the lot. She climbed in and turned the key in the ignition, but the engine gave only a brief groan. She waited a minute, then tried again. Nothing.
With a cry of frustration she clambered out, bumping her head on the door frame. A flash of pain, followed by a dull throbbing. Wincing, she reached up to massage her scalp.
Sam wheeled about to find Ian Carpenter loping toward her. She cast him the somewhat abashed smile of a woman who hadn't been as scrupulous as she ought to in getting her car serviced.
"I've heard of brides being left high and dry," she said with a laugh, feeling more than a little foolish as she stood there rubbing her head, "but never the mother of the bride."
"Why don't I have a look?"
"Oh, I couldn't—"
But he was already peeling off his jacket. He lifted the hood, and after several minutes of poking about, straightened to announce, "Looks like you're going to need a new fuel pump."
"Oh, dear." She tried not to think of how much it would cost. "I'd better phone the garage."
"You can do it from the house." He slammed the hood down, fishing a handkerchief from his pocket to wipe the grease from his hands. "Come on, I'll give you a lift." He gestured toward a white Chevy van at the other end of the lot.
"I don't suppose it would do to be late to my own party," she said, falling in step beside him.
Ian laughed. "No offense, but I don't think anyone will notice." With his blond hair tucked behind one ear, in which the tiniest crescent of a stud glittered, he reminded her of the boys who used to hang about when Laura and Alice were teenagers.
As she climbed into the van a wave of deja vu swept over her. Wasn't it only yesterday she'd been a teenager herself, piling with her friends into similar vans on her way to black-light dances and protest rallies? Back then life had seemed an open door just waiting for her to step through it. And though the path she'd chosen suited her in most ways, it wasn't without a small measure of regret that she looked back now, slightly chagrined to realize that to this young lion of a man with eyes the color of a summer twilight and a smile that ought to be outlawed—the kind who once would have inspired sleepless nights and dreamy doodling in margins—she was nothing other than a nice older woman in need of a ride.
Excerpted from The Carson Springs Trilogy by Eileen Goudge. Copyright © 2003 Eileen Goudge. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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