I picked up Madeleine from the vet's, where I'd boarded her while I was gone. The entire staff could hardly wait until she left; Madeleine hated everyone who worked there and let them know it. Growls issued from her carrier all the way to the townhouse, but I ignored her. I was riding on a happy wave and no fat marmalade cat could make me crash.
I met Martin for lunch at Beef 'N More, and once we'd said hello to half a dozen people, we were free to talk about the house. Really, Martin listened to me talk. I set my notepad by my plate and had to keep pushing up my glasses as I referred to it.
"You're happy," he said, dabbing his mouth with his napkin.
"More than I've ever been."
"I got you the right thing."
"Would you mind if I left you with the whole responsibility of seeing to the changes we need to make in the house?"
"Is this a nice way of saying, 'Since you're not working, could this be your job?'"
Martin looked disconcerted for a second. "I guess it is," he admitted. "I want our house to look nice, of course, and be comfortable for us; I mean, I care what it looks like! But I have some business trips coming up - " I made a little sound of dismay. "Trips?"
"I'm sorry, honey. This was totally unexpected. I promise in three weeks I won't budge." Three weeks from now was the wedding. "But there are a lot of things I have to tie up before I take off for the wedding and our honeymoon." To tell the truth, the prospect of having free rein on the house renovation was very attractive. I felt he was dangling that as recompense for the business trips, but okay. I bit.
"What have we got in the next three weeks that I need to be on hand for?" he said, getting his pocket calendar out.
I whipped out my own and went over the schedule: a supper party, a shower for me. "Then," I went on, "we have a barbecue in our honor at Amina's parents' lake house, a week from Saturday. It's informal. Amina and her husband will be driving in from Houston for that."
Amina would be my only attendant. The fit of her dress and the chance of her getting nauseated during the ceremony added yet another note of suspense to an already nerve-wracking rite.
"Southern weddings," my beloved said darkly.
"It would be a lot worse if we weren't so old and established," I told him. "If I were twenty-two instead of thirty-one and you were twenty-four instead of forty-five, we'd have at least double this schedule." Martin was aghast.
"I'm not joking," I assured him.
"And then, at the reception, you just have cake and punch," he said, shaking his head.
"I know it's hard to understand, but that's the way we do things in Lawrenceton," I said firmly. "I know when Barby got married she had a supper buffet and a band, but believe me, we're stretching it by having champagne." He took my hand and once again I felt that oozy, melty feeling that was disgustingly like a forties song.
"I heard from Barby," he said, and I kept my face smiling happily with some effort. My future sister-in-law wasn't my favorite part of the wedding package. "She's flying in two days before the wedding, and she accepted your mother's offer of her guest bedroom. I'll call your mother and thank her," Martin said, making a note. "And Barrett called."
Martin's son called Martin about once a month, to recount his ups and downs on the road to an acting career in California.
"Is Barrett still going to be your best man?"
"He can't make it."
I stiffened, dropping all pretense at smiling.
"He has a part in a movie filming then," Martin said expressionlessly. "He's waited a long time for this part; he has lines and is on screen for several scenes... the hero's best friend."
We looked at each other.
"I'm sorry," I said finally.
Martin looked over the heads of the other diners. I was glad we were in one of the little alcoves that make Beef 'N More at least a tolerable place to eat. "There's something I want to talk to you about," he said after a moment. The subject of Barrett was clearly closed.
I shifted my face around to "Expectant."
"The garage apartment," he said.
I raised my eyebrows even higher.
"I have a friend who just came into town from Florida. He lost his job. He and his wife are very capable people. I wondered - if you didn't mind - if they could have the garage apartment."
"Of course," I said. I'd never met a friend of Martin's, an old friend. He had made a few connections locally, mostly at the Athletic Club, upper-management men like himself. "You knew him from - ?"
"Vietnam," he said.
"So what's his name?"
"Shelby. Shelby Youngblood. I thought... with all the renovation ... it might be nice to have someone else on the spot out at the house. Shelby will probably work out at Pan-Am Agra in shipping and receiving, but Angel, his wife, could be there when he's not."
"Okay," I said, feeling I'd missed something important. "When I found out Barrett couldn't come," Martin said, almost as an afterthought, "I called your stepfather, and he's agreed to be my best man." I smiled with genuine pleasure. In many ways, it was easier to marry an older man who was used to fending for himself. "That was a good idea," I said, knowing John must have been pleased to be asked.
We parted in the parking lot. He took off back to work, and I was going to my favorite paint/carpet/wallpaper store, Total House, to start the Julius place on its road to becoming our house. But halfway there, I pulled over to the curb and sat staring ahead, my window open for the cool fresh air. Martin, in his "mysterious" mode, had put one over on me. Who the hell was this Shelby Youngblood? What kind of woman was his wife? What sort of job in Florida had he lost, and how did he know where to find Martin? I drummed my fingers on the steering wheel, wondering. Probably this was the downside of marrying an older man who was used to fending for himself. He also was not used to having to explain himself. And yet Martin deserved to keep his past life a secret, I thought confusedly; I was hardly telling him all... No! I had told him everything that might make a difference to our life together. I wasn't wanting to know the names of his sexual partners in the past years, which of course he should keep to himself. But I had a right, didn't I, a right to know - what? What was really frightening me? But we hadn't known each other that long, I told myself. We had plenty of time for Martin to tell me whatever heavy and grim passages from his past he wanted me to know.
I was going to marry Martin. I started my car and pulled back into the modest stream of traffic that was Lawrence-ton's lunch-hour rush. Because really, trickled on a tiny cold relentless voice in the very back of my mind, really, if you asked him and he told you, you might learn something that would force you to cancel the wedding.
The prospect of being without him was so appalling, I just couldn't risk it. At the second stoplight, I swept this all neatly under my mental carpet as prewedding jitters and took a right turn to Total House. There I made a few salesmen very, very happy.
I met Martin at the Episcopal church, St. James, that night for our fourth premarital counseling session with Father Aubrey Scott. The two men were standing out in the churchyard talking when I arrived - Martin shorter, more muscular than Aubrey, more intense. It felt odd walking over to them under their scrutiny; Aubrey had been my escort for several months and we had been rather fond (though never more than that) of each other. If they were asked to describe me, I suddenly thought, they would describe totally different people. I stowed that thought away to chew at later.
Martin had met me when I was dating Aubrey, and consequently always felt extra possessive when Aubrey was around, I'd noticed. Now, he slid his arm around me as I joined them, while keeping their desultory conversation going. " - the Julius house?" Aubrey was saying in some surprise. I looked up, way up, at his mildly handsome face with its carefully groomed dark mustache.
"Her wedding present," Martin said simply.
"Quite a gift," Aubrey said. "But, Roe, won't it bother you?"
"What?" I asked, deliberately obtuse.
"The missing family. I've been in Lawrenceton long enough to hear the story, several times. Though I'm sure it's gotten embroidered over the years. Can there really have been hot food still on the table when the mother came over from the garage apartment?"
"I don't know, I hadn't heard that particular twist," I said.
"And it won't make you nervous?" Aubrey persisted.
"It's a wonderful house," I said. "It makes me happy just to walk in the door."
"Emily would be too nervous to stay an hour."
Aubrey always had to drag Emily Kaye into the conversation. I figured the sexual dynamics went something like this: Aubrey and I had parted when Martin and Emily appeared on our horizons. Emily had the child Aubrey wanted and couldn't have (he was sterile) and Martin had so much electricity for me I felt the air crackled when we were together. But Aubrey had dated me first, and perhaps a little resented my recovering from his gentle "good-bye" speech so thoroughly and quickly. So Emily Kaye, his all-but-in-name fianc¨¦e, was sure to be mentioned whenever I saw him.
It's stuff like that that made me so glad to be almost married. After so many years of dating and not-dating, I was heartily sick of all these little undercurrents and maneuverings. I was ready to be devastatingly straightforward. There is no telling what my reputation for eccentricity would have become if Martin hadn't chanced to want to see a house my mother, the real estate queen of Lawrenceton, was too busy to show him. She'd sent me in her stead and we had met for the first time on the front steps.
The phone rang in Aubrey's office, and he excused himself to answer it. I seized the opportunity to turn Martin's face toward mine and give him a very thorough kiss. That was certainly one of the biggest differences in my relationship with Martin; the sex was frequent, uninhibited, and absolutely wonderful. My sexual experience was not extensive, though I'd had what I thought was good sex before, but I had found a whole new dimension to the subject with Martin Bartell. He said, "If it's the suit, I'll wear it every day."
"I was just thinking about the first time I saw you."
"Can we go back and stand on the steps of that house again?"
"No, Mother sold it last week."
"Well - " Martin bent to resume where we'd left off, but Aubrey came out of his office then. The churchyard was getting dark, and he called to us to come in. We went in hand and hand, and while we talked in his office, the darkness outside became complete.
"I had supper tonight with Shelby Youngblood," Martin said. He was leaning against his car, I against mine, side by side in the church parking lot. The security lights overhead made his face colorless and cast deep shadows under his eyes.
Martin was going to spend the night at his apartment since he was leaving early in the morning to catch a plane to the Pan-Am Agra plant in Arkansas. "I should meet him," I murmured.
"That's what I wanted to set up. Can he come out to the new house tomorrow morning? That's where you'll be?"
I nodded. "Martin, what's this man like?"
"Shelby? He's ....rustworthy."
That wasn't exactly what I'd expected to hear. A strange capsule biography. "I guess I wanted a little more than that," I said. "Does he drink, smoke, gamble? Where does he come from? What did he do before he came here?" "He doesn't talk much about himself," Martin said after a pause. "I guess you'll have to find out what he's like from his actions." I'd made Martin angry. Perhaps he felt I was questioning his judgment.
"You know what I call the way you look now?" I asked.
Martin raised his eyebrows in polite query. He really was angry.
"Your 'Intruder Alert' face."
He looked surprised, then irritated, and finally he began laughing.
"Am I that bad?" he asked. "I know I have a problem talking about some things.
No one ever called me on it before."
I waited a little while.
"I don't talk about Vietnam easily, because it was dirty and scary," he said finally. "And there are some people I don't talk about, because they're connected with that time ... I guess Shelby's one of them. He's from Tennessee, from Memphis. We were in the same platoon. We were good friends. After the war, we hung around together for a while. We kept in touch. Maybe once every three months I'd get a phone call or letter, for at least four years or so. Then I didn't hear from Shelby for a long, long time. I thought something must have happened to him."
Martin turned to look at the floodlit church, the lights shining full on his face for a minute, making him look - old.
"I got a letter from him about a year ago, and we resumed the connection. He had married Angel."
Martin stopped abruptly and I realized I had gotten all I was going to get.
It was a start.
I was at the Julius house by seven the next morning. I looked at each room, slowly and carefully, revising my room-by-room list of the changes that needed to be made. At 8:15 the carpenters came, followed me around, took notes, and left. At 9:00 the paint, wallpaper, and carpet people came, measured, and left. At 9:45 the plumber showed up, trailing a miserable-looking assistant with a cigarette stuck in his mouth.
"Please don't smoke in here," I said as pleasantly as possible. The lanky red-haired boy, who couldn't have been more than eighteen, threw me a sullen look and retreated to the front yard, where I was willing to bet he'd leave his cigarette butt in the grass. After years at the library, I could fairly accurately predict which teenagers were going to behave and which were going to be problems. This one was a problem. I looked at my plumber. "I know, I know," John Henry said. "I don't think he'll last long. It's a pain riding in the truck with him. But his mama is my wife's best friend." We sighed simultaneously.
John Henry and I discussed the bathrooms, worked out a schedule (as soon as possible), and then he crawled under the house to check out the plumbing. "I'm a little scared to explore too much here," he confessed with a broad grin. "Who knows but what they're all under the house?"
"Oh, the Juliuses." I smiled back. "Well, I bet the police checked that out pretty thoroughly at the time."
"Sure. Still, I bet you wonder if they'll show up here somewhere. It'd give me the creeps, Roe."
"It doesn't bother me," I said dismissively, and turned to the open front door to see a stranger standing there. He was looking back over his shoulder at the red-haired boy smoking on the lawn. When he turned to me, I recognized the dark man who'd been sitting in Martin's waiting room the day I'd returned from Ohio. This was Shelby Youngblood. He looked at me in that moment, and we had a good rude stare at each other.
He was about five foot ten, swarthy-skinned, with muscles that were truly impressive, even to one used to Martin's muscular build. His hair was a dusty black, shaggy, only a few threads of gray, and his mustache was the kind that framed his mouth. His eyes were blue, and he wore old jeans and a faded T-shirt. His hands looked broad and hard.
"Miss Teagarden?" he asked, in a pleasant voice. "I'm Shelby Youngblood." I'd expected him to growl.
"I'm glad to meet a friend of Martin's," I said honestly. "Please call me Roe."
We shook hands. His were very hard, ridged and scarred.
"Come see the garage apartment," I suggested.
I got my keys and led the way, out the kitchen, under the roofed walkway, over to the garage with the covered stairs running up the side closest to the house. I unlocked the door at the top, and we went in. Since the garage was not only more than wide enough for two cars, but had a deep storage room running all its width along the back, the apartment was larger than one expected from outside. It was a very good size for one person - it was basically one large open room. I hoped two people would be comfortable there. The bathroom was small but adequate, and more modern than the ones in the house, since it was the Juliuses who had turned what had been a glorified hayloft into an apartment for Mrs. Julius's mother. The tiny kitchen was not meant for producing a full Thanksgiving feast, but would be bearable for someone who was not an enthusiastic cook.
I looked at Shelby Youngblood inquiringly.
"Is this okay?" I asked, when he didn't say anything. "It's fine," he said with some surprise, as if he hadn't realized I was waiting for his verdict.
"This carpet is mildewed, I think the carpet pad is, too," I said, wrinkling my nose. I hadn't noticed this the other time I'd looked at the apartment. "I'll replace it. Is there any color you particularly like? Anything that might match your furniture... ?"
"Right now, we don't have any," he said calmly.
He seemed amused.
All right! What was so damn funny about not having furniture, about my wanting to know if their furniture was any color I should be mindful of when I ordered carpet! Didn't most people in their forties have furniture? It wasn't as if I'd asked about his racial origin or asked him to describe a shrimp fork. I could feel myself turning red.
"Angel and I haven't been in one place long enough to accumulate much," he said, and I nodded curtly.
"Then I'll rent it furnished," I said, and turned and walked out.
I stomped down the stairs breathing heavily.
I spied John Henry's wife's best friend's son going into my house with a cigarette in his mouth.
"Excuse me!" I called.
He stopped and turned.
This kid had an attitude, no doubt about it. He looked at me as if I'd crawled out from under a rock to question his God-given right to smoke in my house. "Please put out the cigarette before you go in," I said as evenly as I could manage, coming to a stop in the front yard a few feet away from the boy as he stood on my front steps.
He rolled his eyes and sneered. It was one of those teenage grimaces that make you amazed that so many of them survive to adulthood. Of course teenagers had acted like this in the library, and I had handled it then, but a few months away had resensitized me.
Already angry, I was now inwardly berserk. What this translated to on the outside was that I had my hands clenched in fists by my side, my jaw felt soldered together, and all I needed to complete my Shirley Temple imitation was to stick my lip out.
The boy dropped the cigarette on my wooden porch and ground it out with his foot. He took another step inside.
"Pick it up," suggested a quiet voice from behind me.
"Huh?" The boy's mouth was open in amazement at this novel idea. "Pick it up and put it in your pocket," the quiet voice said, as if it were implanting a posthypnotic suggestion.
With a fearful stare over my shoulder, the boy reached down, picked up his cigarette butt, dropped it in his pocket, and scuttled into the house. "Now," I said, pivoting on my heel, "I could have handled that by myself."
"I made you mad in the first place," Shelby said. I tried to think that out, but couldn't while he was standing there looking at me.
"We should start again," he said.
"Hi, I'm Shelby Youngblood, a friend of Martin's."
"Hi. I'm Roe Teagarden, Martin's fianc¨¦e."
We didn't shake hands again, but regarded each other warily.
"I hope you don't mind Martin suggesting we live here," Shelby said.
That wasn't easy for him. He wasn't used to being beholden to anyone. I blew out a long breath silently, gradually cooling down. I decided on simple positive sentences. "I am very glad for you to be in the apartment. I know that you plan to help out while the renovation is going on. I'm anxious to get it done as soon as possible. We'll get married in three weeks, and be back from our honeymoon two weeks after that, so I hope to have most of it done by then." "If I start work at Pan-Am Agra before then, Angel will be more than able to supervise whatever work is left to be done," Shelby said. "And by the way, she likes light orange - I think she calls it peach - and green." I could feel the tension ease out of my face.
"Will you go back to - Florida, right? - to get her, or..." "Yeah. I'll fly back tomorrow, and we'll wrap things up there and start driving up here in maybe three or four days."
"Okay. That'll work out great." By the time the Young-bloods were in place, I should be more and more wrapped up in wedding plans, and it really would be a help to have them actually on the spot.
For the first time I saw how Shelby Youngblood had gotten out to the house. He was driving Martin's car.
"He really does trust you," I said.
We gave each other another long look. "Catch you later," Shelby said casually, and strode off, starting up Martin's car and driving off in it. It felt very strange to see someone else in Martin's car.
I ran into town to tell the carpet and paint people they had a new job, and one that took priority. By great good fortune, they had a peach-colored carpet in stock. Since the white walls in the apartment were still in very good shape, I asked the painter to do the baseboards and door and window frames in green. I was lucky enough to find white curtains with a little peach-colored figure at WalMart (I was in too much of a hurry to have some made), and as for furniture ... gee, this was getting expensive. I looked in the for-sale ads of the Lawrenceton Sentinel and called some of the numbers listed. By late afternoon, I'd found a very nice used bedroom suite and a couch and two armchairs in a neutral beige, and had run back to WalMart and bought queen-size sheets and a bedspread (green). The living-room set was in good shape but needed cleaning. I made a note to buy a spray cleaner, and then rushed back to the townhouse to get ready for the wedding shower.
As I sank into the warm water of the bathtub, I realized that I hadn't eaten lunch and didn't have time to eat supper. I was astonished. Meals were not something I skipped without noticing. Well, I certainly hadn't missed the calories, but I wouldn't be able to keep up this pace unless I took better care of myself. I consciously relaxed everything from my toes on up, practicing slow regular breathing. I was going to enjoy tonight. I'd waited all these years for a bridal shower in my honor; by golly, this was my night. Luckily, I'd decided in advance what to wear. I pulled the purple with white polka dots from the closet, put in the amethyst earrings Martin had bought me, slid my feet into one of my few pairs of high heels. After surveying my reflection, I added a small gold bracelet. I brushed my hair carefully and then put on a braided headband to keep the mass out of my face (and my drink, and my food).
Food. I hoped Eileen and Sally had a tableful. Maybe those sausage and biscuit balls?
My mouth watered while I swapped purses, and when my mother rang the doorbell, I was feeling ravenous.
My mother, Aida Brattle Teagarden Queensland, looked aristocratic and slim and cool as ever in a gorgeous royal blue suit. She is a woman dauntingly difficult to criticize. Her clothes and behavior are always appropriate for the occasion. She always thinks before she speaks. Her extensive and successful business dealings are always ethically aboveboard, and her employees have excellent health benefits and a profit-sharing program.
But she is definitely not a woman you would run up and hug without a fair warning and a good reason, and she is not sentimental, and she never forgets anyone who does not deal fairly with her.
Mother gave me a careful, cheerful kiss on the cheek. She was finally marrying me off, enjoying all the mother-of-the-bride things that she'd been denied. And she knew I was happy. And she approved of Martin, though I sensed reservations. Martin was closer to her age than to mine, and that worried her a bit. (She had asked me if I'd seen his company's insurance policy, for example.) And, being my mother and extremely property oriented, she wanted to know how much money Martin had in the bank, what his salary was, how much of that he saved, and what his pension program was. Since it was impossible for her to ask Martin these things point-blank, it had been amusing to hear her try to maneuver the conversation delicately around to what she wanted to know.
"I'm willing to give her a full, typed financial statement," Martin had told me after we'd eaten supper with Mother and John one night. "That would be too direct," I told him. "I don't know why she's in such a lather, anyway." (Though actually, my mother in a lather was pretty unimaginable.) "I have plenty of money of my own, safely invested, well protected."
"She's just watching out for you," Martin said fondly. I had dark thoughts about why everyone seemed to feel I needed "watching out for," but considering my mother had a right to if anyone did, I kept quiet. Now as Mother swept me into her superior car (she'd picked me up because she considered my old Chevette to be too plebeian for The Bride) she checked me over as though I were going on my first date, gave a quick little nod of approval, and asked me if I'd heard from my father lately. "Not since he called me after he talked to Betty Jo about coming," I answered. Betty Jo was my father's second wife, down to earth, plain, and homey as all get out. When he'd fled my mother, Father had certainly run in the opposite direction. He and Betty Jo lived in California now, with their child, my brother Phillip, age nine. I hadn't seen my father or Phillip or Betty Jo in nearly three years.
"He said they were?"
"If he could take his vacation time then. He was going to ask."
"And you haven't heard back," my mother murmured, almost to herself.
I didn't say anything.
"I'll call him tomorrow," she said decisively. "He has to let us know."
"I'd like Phillip to be ring-bearer if they're coming," I said suddenly. It was lucky we were in Mother's big Lincoln, because it was full of thoughts unsaid. Phillip had had a traumatic experience the last time he spent the weekend with me. They'd moved to California in a (to me) mistaken attempt to help Phillip recover, and he'd been seeing a counselor for a year afterward. According to my father's rare letters, Phillip was fine now. Then, as we parked at Eileen's house, I caught a glimpse through the picture window of a table covered in white with white and silver wedding bells hanging from the light fixture, and Eileen carrying in a big tray of something sure to be edible, and Sally Allison, her cohostess, stirring a huge silver bowl of punch. On a table nearby presents wrapped in white and silver and pastels were heaped. Sally and Eileen were dressed to the teeth. As I slid out of the car it hit me smack in the psyche.
This was for me.
I was getting married.
I put one hand out to the roof of the car and the other touched my chest as if I were pledging my allegiance.
I knew a moment of delight, followed by a groundswell of panic.
"Just hit you, huh?" Mother asked.
I nodded, unable to say a word.
We stood in the dark, looking through that window, for a couple of minutes. It was oddly companionable.
"Which way is it going to be?" Mother finally asked.
It was the first time she'd spoken to me as if I were absolutely grown up.
"Let's go in," I said, and started up the sidewalk to the front door.