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By Mary Kay McComas
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1989 Mary Kay McComas
All rights reserved.
"Emily, you are a very strange person," Jennifer said, her expression emphasizing the remark.
"So you keep telling me." Emily was well aware of everything that even briefly crossed her cousin's mind. Jennifer hadn't the slightest compunction in speaking aloud her every thought.
"Well, don't you think it a little strange that when given a choice of birthday gifts, someone would choose wallpaper?"
"Not if that's what this someone wanted," Emily said mildly, studying a book of wallpaper samples the way Jennifer would a jeweler's showcase. "What do you think of this one?" she asked, more to herself than to Jennifer.
Her cousin glanced at the sample, rolled her eyes, then slammed the book closed with a heavy, dramatic sigh. "How about a new coat? That would be a very practical gift, and it would get this eyesore you're wearing off the streets at the same time. I swear, Emily, I'm almost embarrassed to be seen with you."
"Almost embarrassed?" Emily asked, taking no offense. It wasn't just the coat Jennifer was objecting to. She'd been "almost embarrassed" by nearly everything Emily did, said, or wore for as long as she could remember. Every time they got together they had the same conversation. Jennifer would lead off with a disparaging remark and eventually would wind up asking why Emily had chosen to come back to Remount instead of keeping her job in D.C.
Emily's response was always the same, but just to give her cousin the impression that she had been giving her life some consideration, she would look thoughtful for a moment and then take a wild stab at the right answer. "I'm happy here?"
"You can't be."
"Because that old barn of a house you live in is a disgrace—"
"It's a historical landmark," Emily injected calmly.
"You have no money."
"I have few needs."
"Your job is depressing."
"It's challenging and very rewarding."
"You have no social life in this dead-end town."
"I have many good friends," Emily said, and then added, "And I have you."
"Well, you're lucky to have me anyway," she'd say, shaking her head and giving her that poor Emily look. It was an expression Emily was very familiar with but one she'd never been quite able to understand.
There was nothing poor about Emily. To her way of thinking, she was one of the wealthiest women she knew. Not monetarily, of course, but in other ways. Ways that couldn't be measured.
Not that her life was perfect. Emily had her trials and tribulations, just like everyone else. While growing up she'd wanted a sister—or a dog. She'd gotten neither. But she'd had loving, supportive parents and a pretty terrific childhood nonetheless.
After college she'd spent six years in the hustle and bustle of Washington, D.C., working with the Department of Health and Human Services and sowing herself a few wild oats. She'd returned to her childhood home after her parents had passed away, with a solid conviction that she was better suited to living the life of a medium-size fish in a small pond than the life of a guppy in an ocean.
There'd been minor disappointments, like learning to live with her curly brown hair, which came into fashion only every fifteen years or so; knowing that her mustard-brown eyes were too large for her face; and having to remember to suck in her bottom lip so she wouldn't appear to be pouty. She also thought it was taking Mr. Right an extraordinarily long time to show up in her life, but she figured these things were all pretty much fate-related and uncontrollable, so there wasn't much sense in worrying about them.
Rather, Emily liked to think that she was a healthy, intelligent, and capable woman who didn't have to perm her hair when curly was cool, that there was a chance she might meet the man of her dreams around the next corner, and that her life, in general, wasn't so bad.
"I'd be completely embarrassed if we were in Richmond," her cousin was saying. "But here in Remount, everyone knows you're a little off, that you've been this way since childhood—and that it has no reflection on me. What are you staring at?"
"Shh," Emily hissed, waving her cousin to be silent. "There he is. Across the street. Jogging. See him?" Jennifer wasn't able to resist looking when Emily actually sighed in ecstasy. "Isn't he the most beautiful man you've ever seen?"
Jennifer narrowed her nearsighted eyes and gave this description careful consideration.
Emily, with her breath caught in her throat and her heartbeat skipping erratically, also gave careful consideration to the subject in question. She watched wistfully as the jogger ran past Trudy's Antique Shop on the other side of Main Street. He was tall and lean and graceful. His hair was dark and on the long side. She'd often wondered what color his eyes were, but she'd never seen him up close, only from a distance.
Some days he wore a sweat suit, but most days he wore shorts and a short tank top. She loved the way he held his arms when he ran. The muscles that ran along his upper arms and across his shoulders were lethal looking. Of course, watching the powerful cords of strength in his legs ripple and bulge was a fascinating pastime as well. She'd frequently found herself wishing that he ran a little slower. There never seemed to be enough time to see it all. She had finally taken to watching his arms one day and his legs the next.
Suddenly the man turned and, stepping lively in place, checked the traffic before running out into the street.
"Oh," Emily said with a gasp. "He's crossing the street. He's coming this way. He's coming here."
"Good. Now I can get a better look at him."
"Oh, Jennifer, please, don't look at him," Emily said, agitated. "I mean, well, you can look at him, but don't stare or draw his attention to us. Please."
"Because. Please. I'm begging."
Jennifer rolled her eyes and adjusted herself so that she could appear to be deeply into selecting wallpaper and spy on the jogger at the same time. Actually she was quite good at this sort of covert operation and probably would have done it even if Emily hadn't asked.
The bell on the door jingled as the man came in. Emily caught the briefest glimpse of his face before he took up the towel from around his neck and hid his appearance, wiping the sweat from his brow.
"Aw," Jennifer groaned disappointedly.
"Shh." Emily wasn't disappointed. He seemed almost larger than life to her close up, which made for a lot more rippling muscle to see. She was a patient woman. She could content herself with thick, long, sinewy legs and broad, brawny shoulders until she discovered the rest of what went with the dark hair that curled so charmingly along the nape of his neck when it was damp with perspiration.
Emily and Jennifer stood motionless over their sample books, straining to hear what the man was saying to the storekeeper at the back of the shop. He was apparently looking for something specific that wasn't in stock and was being genial over his lack of success. The elbow in Emily's ribs was her signal that the man was on his way back to the front of the shop. As if on cue, both women very casually looked up as the jogger reached the door. He turned his head and looked straight at them.
Emily just about died. Her heart stopped. Respiration ceased. Even her nervous system degenerated to a spastic jumble of sporadic impulses as she took in warm brown eyes, a thin, noble nose, a high brow, and perfect, kissable lips. For an instant she thought a fly might have zoomed into her open mouth; she closed it with a snap. She watched as his eyes seemed to gobble up Jennifer in one easy swallow. She went to heaven when his gaze met and held hers for one whole glorious second. Then he smiled. Emily's kneecaps melted, and she gripped the display table to keep herself upright.
"Ladies," he said in a voice as deep and rich as King Solomon's mines. He nodded, and just like that opened the door and was gone.
"Isn't he wonderful," Emily said in awe, her voice a bare whisper.
"Yeah. Wonderful." Jennifer didn't sound too impressed. "Who is he?"
"I don't know. I haven't met him," Emily said absently, leaning over the table to watch the jogger until he was out of sight. "He runs past the house every day at eight o'clock sharp." She gasped and turned to look at Jennifer. "He's late today, but I'll bet that's where he's going now."
"For crying out loud, Emily. He's a half-naked man who's sweaty and probably smelly as well; you don't know his name or who he is or how much money he makes, and you're acting as if he's ... as if he's somebody special."
"Oh, I think he must be," Emily said quietly. "Or at least, I think he is."
Jennifer closed her eyes and shook her head in hopelessness. "I thought we'd already been through all this," she said in her you-poor-demented-Emily voice as she turned back to the table piled high with samples of wall coverings. "See this book of wallpaper samples?" She flipped open a book at random and fanned the pages rapidly. "Picking out a man is just like picking out wallpaper for your stairwell."
Emily frowned at her in confusion, then frowned at the catalogue. "That's not exactly been my experience, but if you say so ..."
"Look at it this way, Emily. There are a zillion patterns to choose from. Just like men. Some you can live with, some you can't. Just like men. Some of those patterns will be out-of-date or unavailable. Just like men. Once you finally settle on one, you take it home and slap it on the wall. If it sticks, you live happily ever after. If it doesn't, you get your money back in a settlement. If you get sick of the pattern, you come back to the store and pick out a new one. It's all very simple and nothing to get excited about, unless ..."
"Unless what?" Emily was very curious to know what would make one man among zillions special enough to excite Jennifer.
"Well, unless, of course, he was a truly superb lover. Then you'd have something."
"What if he was exceptionally intelligent or witty or sensitive?"
"All three and sexy to boot would probably kill you. But you don't need to worry yourself about that ever happening, honey. That man hasn't been made yet." Jennifer gave Emily a reassuring pat on the shoulder and moseyed off to see if there was anything the least bit interesting to see in the rest of the shop.
"The ultimate romantic," Emily labeled her cousin under her breath as she turned back to the samples. Well, if anyone knew about men, the dark, striking Jennifer certainly should. Married and divorced three times, she was never at a loss for a date when she wanted one. However, in this case she opted to think her cousin's opinion might be slightly warped. She found it very hard to compare the jogger to a piece of wallpaper.
"Look, how about if I just leave you the money and you come back some other day and pick out your paper," Jennifer suggested, her hands on Emily's shoulders as she turned her toward the door. "I need to get home sometime during this century, and you still haven't told me what you've decided to do about that history professor over at the college."
Emily followed her cousin out the door without an argument. She'd known better than to try to pick out wallpaper with her anyway. Jennifer just wasn't in a wallpaper-picking mood.
"I haven't made up my mind yet," she said a short while later over a light lunch. The small café on Main Street was nearly empty as it was almost two P.M., the time when Jennifer preferred to eat. "I wrote and told this Professor McEntire that most of those stories about old William Joseph were just that, stories. I told him it would be a waste of his time, that dozens of historians had been over and over those papers and found nothing. But he still wants to come to the house and go through all that stuff in the attic."
"Haven't you heard about just saying no?"
"Yes, of course, but he seems very determined."
"Of course he does. You know what he's looking for, don't you?"
"Yes. I know what he's looking for. And you know as well as I do that it isn't there ... if it ever existed. It wouldn't be fair to lead the professor on by allowing him to start looking for something that just plain isn't there."
"Well, it is his time, honey. If he wants to waste it, let him. Who knows. Maybe his middle name is Lucky."
Emily slipped her cousin a discrediting glance.
William Joseph Becket was her grandfather's grandfather—there were too many greats and grands in there to describe his relationship to Emily any other way. Rumor had it that old William Joseph had been a very busy man during the Civil War. A diehard Rebel wounded but not incapacitated early on in the war, he was said to have carried on some not so honorable and very treasonous acts in the name of the Confederacy throughout the remaining war years. Not the least of which was harboring a fortune in stolen gold—gold that was never recovered.
Emily had never been too sure if she believed all the stories or not. She liked to imagine the gold was still out there for some clever person like herself to find. But it made more sense to think that if it ever had existed, it surely would have been found sometime in the past one hundred years.
"If you were clever, you could arrange to meet this wonderful jogger of yours, you know," Jennifer said, catching Emily's undivided attention again as she changed the topic of conversation.
"You could take up jogging."
"And fall over dead at his feet by the time I reached the front gates." Emily was about as athletic as an orange.
"Or you could approach him with the idea of giving some exercise classes at that place where you work, 'club dead.'"
"That's not funny, Jennifer."
"Well, honestly, Emily. It's no wonder you don't know how to relate to anyone under the age of seventy. You need a new job."
"I love my job. It's satisfying. I enjoy the work, and I especially enjoy the people." She paused then added, "And please don't call it 'club dead' again."
"Too close to the truth?"
Emily gave her a mordant stare. "Let's talk about something else."
"Okay. We can talk about the Remount Ball if you want. I know you love that."
Emily gave a derisive snort. "It's your turn to go. I went last year."
"You're going again this year. I have plans."
"That's what you said two years ago and I wound up filling in for you then too."
"Well, you're much better at those sort of things than I am, Emily. They're so boring. I swear, the last time I went, I thought I'd contracted a terminal yawn."
"Very funny. But I'm not filling in for you this time."
Jennifer studied her cousin long and hard. Nobody knew Emily better than Jennifer did. When Emily made up her mind about something in that quiet, deliberate way she had about her, there was no changing it. "You come with me, then. I swear, if you don't, I'll do something horribly outrageous to disgrace the family name. I'll bring the press to witness it, and it'll cause such a scandal, they'll have to close the college." Jennifer wasn't above a good threat to get what she wanted.
"Has anyone ever accused you of being a little overdramatic?" Emily asked, stone-faced, already wondering if she could get away with wearing last year's gown.
"Maybe once," she admitted, smiling too sweetly. "But never twice."
Emily sighed. She didn't mind this particular fund-raising affair as much as Jennifer did. It was one of those things that went along with being a big fish in a small pond. But she fully understood why her cousin wasn't willing to go it alone. If misery loved company, so did tedium, embarrassment, and frustration. "Okay. I'll go."
"Good. I'll drive out in the afternoon and dress at the house." Jennifer frowned. "Although I don't know why you didn't insist they have it the same day as your birthday so I wouldn't have to make two trips in the same week."
"I am sorry about that," Emily said, knowing how much Jennifer disliked the inconvenience of having to travel so far to see her. "I didn't have any say in the matter. But I'm still awfully glad you came today."
"Haven't missed your birthday yet, have I?"
Excerpted from Poor Emily by Mary Kay McComas. Copyright © 1989 Mary Kay McComas. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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