Wife On His Doorstep
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He poured her a hefty glass of champagne. “Are you thirsty?”
Getting to her feet, she said, “I haven’t eaten or slept in four days, so I guess what I am is hungry.”
He gestured at the lobsters but she didn’t seem to notice.
“I borrowed your jacket,” she told him as she brushed her hands down the front.
“It looks good on you.”
“I just had to change. I hope you don’t mind—”
“Not at all, Miss Morison. Fact is, I think it looks better on you than that fancy dress...”
He stopped talking because her eyes had suddenly filled with tears. Obviously he’d said the wrong thing.
“I—I’m sorry,” he said as he pushed the plate forward. “Here, I brought lobster, have some.”
“I hate lobster,” she said as she wiped tears off her cheeks with the cuff of her—his—jacket.
“But it’s from your wedding...well, almost wedding...”
His voice trailed off because what he’d said had brought forth more waterworks. He handed her a napkin, which she used to mop at her face, and then she sat opposite him.
“It was Robert’s idea to have it. I wanted chicken. Where is everybody?”
“All of them?”
“I dropped them off at the loading pier before bringing the boat down here to her permanent berth. I’m afraid I took it upon myself to persuade your family to leave you alone. I guess you want to hear that your fianc? was very hard to convince—”
“No,” she interrupted.
John shrugged. “Your mother said to remind you that you don’t have an apartment anymore so to come to her house. I promised her you’d get home okay.”
More tears as Megan stared at the hated crustaceans. When she’d recovered from the new onslaught, she added, “I forgot...I gave up my place so that after the honeymoon I could...I could move in with...with...Robert.”
“Well, maybe you two will patch things up.”
She shook her head in a desultory fashion.
John fished a piece of lobster out of the shell and held it low to the ground. Foggy Dew stared at it for a second, apparently decided it was worth the effort of moving, and jumped down from the bunk. He set the morsel on the floor and turned his attention back to Megan, wondering how he could politely ask her to leave. The half-naked beauty was intended for another man, but she was starting to make him want things he had no business wanting.
He said, “Well, it’s getting late—”
She glanced at the clock that hung on a bulkhead next to the barometer, but said nothing.
“I sent a crew member down to the bridal dressing room and she retrieved the clothing you arrived in. It’s across the hall.” To himself he added that it was a damn shame she had to get out of his jacket. He liked the way the navy blue looked next to her cap of yellow hair, the way different parts of her anatomy filled out the cloth in ways the tailor hadn’t intended.
“That was very kind of you,” she said.
Looking into her eyes was like glimpsing two blue gems buried in the depths of a mountain spring.He had to make himself turn away and liberate more lobster for the cat. “I can call you a cab—”
“I have nowhere to go,” she said.
John delivered the lobster, took a long swallow of champagne and eyed her above the rim of the glass. Then he said, “But your mother—”
“You don’t understand,” she said as she pushed herself away from the table and began pacing. “My mother is crazy about Robert Winslow. She thinks the sun rises and sets on his bank account. All she ever talks about is how much he’s like my late father.”
“Is he?” John heard himself ask.
She shrugged. “Yes. Oh, I don’t know. Dad was strong-willed and blustery, but he was also kind. I can’t even imagine him attacking a harmless animal like that. Anyway, he died when I was just a little kid.” She blinked away the past and added, “Mom will spend the entire night trying to get me to see the stupidity of my ways. I can’t face her.”
John’s gaze had dropped to her smooth, shapely legs. Looking up, he said, “Then that uncle of yours—”
“If anything, he loves Robert even more than Mom does. Robert has given Uncle Adrian money for bailing out a sick business. My uncle’s first thought is going to be that I’m jeopardizing the business by jilting Robert. I can’t go to him, I just can’t.”
“Don’t you see? Everyone likes Robert Winslow. He throws money around like there’s no tomorrow. He buys people’s affections.”
John surprised himself by asking, “Did he buy yours, too?”
She stopped pacing and stared at him. More tears filled her eyes as she said, “No, of course not.” But she ruined the validity of her denial by immediately adding, “At least I don’t think he did.”
Right... John thought. She kind of reminded him of Betsy, his first love, his ex-wife, who had married him on a whim, intrigued by his wealth. Within six months she’d grown bored with his work ethic and taken up extracurricular activities of her own. It had cost him a hefty one-time payment to rid his life of Betsy, and though she’d cheated and lied to him, he’d still felt like the world had been torn asunder when she closed the door behind her. That had been two years ago, and it was only within the past eight or nine months that he’d begun to see that her leaving was really him escaping. Who needed women? They were fickle and hard on the old heart—a man was better off without them.
“I wish you’d say something,” Megan said uneasily.
“I don’t know what to say,” he told her.
Grasping the back of a chair with both hands and leaning slightly forward, she fixed him with an intent stare. “Do you think I was silly today? Do you think I acted irrationally?”
He grinned. “Let’s just say that if you hadn’t pushed that idiot off my boat, I would have.”
“Wait, did you say this was your boat? Does that mean you won’t lose your job because of me?” The relief in her voice touched John. She’d been worried about his fate in this mess—that was kind of sweet.
He laughed and said, “No such luck. Now, like I said, it’s getting late—”
“I don’t have a job,” she said suddenly, as though just realizing that even that part of her life was screwed up.
“You quit your job?”
Though her voice grew husky and her chin trembled, she held her head high, apparently straining for control. “I quit it as of two weeks ago. After all, I was marrying Robert Winslow, what did I need to work at a hospital for? I was going to work with him—at least, that was my plan. I found out this morning that that wasn’t his plan, however. He didn’t want me anywhere near his business or his precious money.”
John remained silent. He suspected her shattered life had derailed her tongue.
“I don’t know where to go or what to do,” she said softly.
John rubbed his jaw as he thought. Heck, where she went wasn’t his problem, was it? He was a skipper of a stern-wheeler, not director of a lonely heart’s club. What did she expect of him? He said, “Maybe a hotel?”
A brief look of hope was extinguished by a frown that tugged on the corners of her lips. Sighing heavily, she shook her head. “I might as well go to Mom’s house. I’ll have to face her sooner or later. Maybe she’ll take pity and let me be for one night.”
“I’m sure that’s the logical thing to do,” he told her, relieved she’d come to her senses. He’d been afraid of what might have happened if she’d insisted on staying the night.
“Is there a phone on board so I can call a cab?”
“Better than that,” he said, generosity filling his heart. “I’ll give you a lift on my way home.”
She looked startled. Gesturing at the table and the sideboard, the bed and the console that held a stereo and TV-VCR combination, she said, “Don’t you live here, in this room, on this boat?”
Standing, he looked down at her. “Sometimes I spend the night, but not often. I’m building a little house along the river, an hour or so from here, and that’s where I live. For now, until I find someone else to skipper this boat, I’m commuting back and forth every day.”
“Even on a Sunday?”
“Especially on a Sunday.”
The mention of work reminded him that Mrs. Colpepper had abandoned ship, supposedly for good. As much as she drove him crazy, he wasn’t prepared to lose her just weeks before a big media dinner-dance she’d booked.
Well, she’d made threats before and she’d always come back—whether it was because of her generous salary, dedication to her obligations or just plain love of driving him nuts, John didn’t know and didn’t much care.
“Your offer is very generous,” Megan murmured. “Thank you.”
“No problem. I know this day hasn’t exactly gone the way you’d planned...”
His voice petered out as Megan’s eyes grew soft with tears she seemed determined to curtail. He’d said the wrong thing again. Mumbling something about fetching her clothes, John got to his feet and crossed the cabin, enjoying the shot of cool river air that hit his face when he opened the door.
You should have just called her a cab, you blasted fool, he grumbled to himself.
Foggy Dew had followed him outside. She made an odd noise as she rubbed his ankles. To John, it sounded as though she was agreeing.
“Over there,” Megan said, pointing to a hamburger stand visible through the rain as a blur of rainbow-colored lights. It had started drizzling as they’d left the stern-wheeler and had picked up gusto as they’d driven through town. Now it fell in relentless buckets. Megan imagined Captain Vermont was anxious to take her home and be rid of her, but there was no way she was going to face her mother on an empty stomach.
He stopped his truck in front of a smiling clown face and opened the window the old-fashioned way, with a handle. For an instant Megan flashed back to the steel cocoon of a cloud gray BMW, Robert beside her, lowering his window with a touch of a finger. This act never happened at a fast-food restaurant, banish the thought. Robert Winslow wouldn’t be caught dead at anything as “ordinary” as a fast-food place—which made the act of stopping at this one all the more appealing!
“What do you want?” the captain asked as rain came through the open window, pelting his shoulder with glistening drops.
Ah, to be asked. Robert had deplored her bad eating habits, endlessly pointing out what was good for her and what wasn’t, taking it upon himself to wean her from junk food. A fitness freak, he jogged and biked—in fact, the only sport he didn’t train in was swimming, a thought that brought an evil little smile to Megan’s lips. “I’ll have a hamburger. No, wait, make it a cheeseburger. And French fries. And a milk shake.”
Without comment on her choices, the captain repeated her order into the clown’s mouth and a disembodied voice told them to drive forward.
“Don’t you want anything?” she asked as she fished the last twenty-dollar bill from the depths of her wallet. “My treat.”
“Thanks, anyway, but I’m not hungry,” he said as he took the money and advanced to the drive-in window. She watched as he paid the attendant, handed Megan back the change and then accepted the food. He had a strong profile visible because of the restaurant lights. A good nose, chiseled jawline, interesting mouth. He was a big man, but not the least bit bulky. A man who exuded confidence and yet seemed strangely ill-at-ease when he was around her.
How could she blame him? She’d been hesitant and scared during the ceremony, mad as a hornet when Robert kicked that poor little kitty into the river, and an emotional wreck ever since. No wonder he was skittish!
He drove as the windshield wipers whacked back and forth and the rain increased. There was nothing like Oregon rain, she thought. She pushed aside the next thought, that if she hadn’t shoved Robert overboard, she’d now be on her way to Australia, where it was probably warm and dry. Wait, that wasn’t right. If Robert hadn’t kicked the little cat, they’d both be on their way to Australia.
And if that had happened, if the wedding had gone as planned, would she now be delirious with joy or facing the possibility she’d made the biggest mistake of her life? If the wedding had gone as planned, they wouldn’t have thrown accusations at each other, he wouldn’t have accused her of marrying him for his money.
This thought made her insides boil with righteous indignation. She’d never taken a penny from him, not a penny! The checks he had written were for the hospital’s new rehab center, for which she’d been raising funds when she’d met him, and yet he’d made it sound as if they were personal handouts.
And since when was she responsible for Uncle Adrian’s debts? If Robert hadn’t wanted to bail him out, then he shouldn’t have bailed him out!
The truth of the matter was that she’d used almost every dime in her savings and pushed her credit cards to their limits to buy her elaborate wedding dress, bowing to pressure from her mother to make sure it was a gown that wouldn’t “embarrass” Robert. He’d insisted on a fancy wedding and had offered to pay for it, and as Megan didn’t have the funds to finance it herself, nor did her mother, she’d agreed. In retrospect, she’d agreed to everything: rushing into marriage, a gala ceremony she couldn’t afford, a dress that put her in debt, a prenuptial agreement that should have been the last straw.
She’d been caught in a whirlwind of romance, so enamored by the fact that an important man like Winslow would make such obvious ploys to win her, and so pleased to have her mother happy again, that she’d put her brain on hold. Well, I won’t let it happen again, she swore to herself. I’ll get my life back on track. I’m independent, I don’t need a man to define myself. It’s foolish and it’s dangerous. For me, romance is dead!
“What did you say?”
The sound of the captain’s deep voice startled her, sending a few French fries tumbling to her lap. She hadn’t realized she’d spoken out loud. How much had she mumbled? How much had he heard?
“Nothing,” she muttered as she retrieved errant fries.
“You’re not eating much.”
“I guess I wasn’t as hungry as I thought,” she told him as she dumped the leftovers into the sack. It was depressing to realize Robert’s eating habits had become hers, as well.
She pointed toward the windshield and added, “We’re almost there, take the next left.”
Megan’s mother lived on the same heavily wooded street on which Megan had grown up. Back then, the house had been luxurious and comfortable, a meeting place for her father’s many friends, a warm house full of laughter. Times had changed; the house was now in need of extensive repairs, the neighborhood was turning seedy, and her mother was holding on by a string. Megan had hoped to help her mom relocate after her honeymoon—that dream was gone now, too.
It had been a very wet, windy winter and a few of the trees had fallen, leaving gaps in the familiar landscape. One fallen tree lay across the front of a neighboring yard, waiting to be hacked into firewood, the root ball positioned toward the road. In the dark and through the rain, the giant fistlike roots clutched the earth in a last, futile attempt to ward off the inevitable.
The house was a two-story white Colonial, lit to within an inch of its life. It never failed to amaze Megan how much better the place looked at night than in the unforgiving glare of day, when the missing shutters, peeling paint, sagging eaves and cracked brick drew attention to themselves. In the driveway sat a sleek gray car, which sent Megan’s heart into overload.
“Don’t stop!” she squealed as Captain Vermont slowed and approached the curb.
He flashed her an annoyed frown. “But that’s the place. Your mother said it was white and—”
“I grew up here. You think I don’t know my own house? Don’t you see? It’s Robert’s car. He must be here. Keep going.”
“But, Megan, Miss Morison—”
“Just keep going!” she demanded as she saw Robert step in front of the living room window, glass in hand.
Her mother was entertaining him! Knowing how Megan felt, her mother had nevertheless invited Robert Winslow into the house and given him a cold drink—no doubt cranberry juice and gin. What a traitor! Her own mother cavorting with the enemy! How dare she!
“Turn down here,” she told the captain.
He shot her a quick look before following her directions, traveling another half a block along a dark, empty side street before pulling up to the curb. Sighing heavily, he turned to face her. “Now what?” he asked, his voice a lot drier than the weather.
Megan wanted him to keep moving. Her heart was beating so fast it pounded in her ears and she had the irrational notion that somehow Robert had known that the green vehicle rolling past the house belonged to Captain Vermont and that she was inside. She fought the desire to turn around to make sure he wasn’t running down the street after them.
“Now what?” he repeated.
Megan glanced over her shoulder. The side street was empty save a few million raindrops that splattered on the pavement and ran in torrents down the gutters.
“I can’t believe my mother is visiting with that man.” She was practically fuming.
“Obviously they’re waiting for you to come home.”
She took a steadying breath.
“Are you ready now?” he asked her.
“Ready? Ready for what?”
“To go back to your mom’s house—”
“Heaven’s no!” she screeched. Oh, how she yearned for her lost apartment, for the solitude she craved, for time to curl into a ball and sleep, sleep, sleep. With that option lost, the next best thing would be a motel, but she knew her credit card would tilt any machine it was run through. Unless the department store she still had credit at had suddenly gone into the business of renting beds or she could find a place that charged less than fifteen dollars, she was out of luck.
She lowered her voice. “Would you mind taking me to Uncle Adrian’s house? It’s not far.”
The captain’s silence filled the truck as surely as a ton of mud. Rarely in Megan’s twenty-six years had she felt as isolated as she did at that moment. This man’s silent condemnation of her character cut her to the quick. With the speed and warning of a flash flood, her emotions overcame her, enveloped her, coaching yet more tears from her eyes and a hopeless sob from her throat.
Temporarily oblivious to anything but her own pain and frustration, Megan was startled when she felt two strong hands grip her shoulders. She looked up to see that the captain had moved close to her. Slowly, cautiously, he pulled her toward him, folding his arms around her. She was so miserable she lay her head against his hard chest, the edge of a black button biting into her cheek. He slowly patted her on the back, she assumed to offer comfort, and oddly enough, his embrace did just that—it comforted her.
There was a feeling of safety to be held so gingerly, so carefully. He smelled like fresh air, and the warmth of his exhaled breaths touched her bare neck. It was with a sense of alarm that she suddenly noticed she was enjoying his attention. She straightened immediately. She would not leap from one man’s arms into another’s, even if the current pair were strong and welcoming in their hesitant, gentle way, and even if these arms were offering nothing but solace.
He released her immediately, but she could feel his eyes on her. She felt set adrift, anchorless and thoroughly alarmed. “Thank you,” she whispered.
He gave her a napkin that had escaped the fast-food restaurant cleanup.
“I don’t even know your name. Your first name, I mean.”
“Jonathan,” he said. “John.”
“John,” she repeated.
“Are you feeling better now?”
She nodded. “I’m really not like this, weepy and everything. Normally, I’m very controlled.”
“I’m sure you are,” he said, his wonderful voice sounding anything but sure.
“I’m sorry I’m such a pain—”
“I’m the one who’s sorry,” he said, cutting her off. “I was rude. I’d chalk it up to stress or fatigue, but I believe you’ve cornered the markets in those departments. No, please don’t cry again, Megan. Okay, where does your uncle live?”
She willed the tears she could feel burning behind her eyes to stay put. “Three miles east of here, even further out of town. I know it’s late—”
“I live another ten miles east of that, so you can see it’s no bother. Besides, in few minutes you’ll be with your uncle. Family, that’s what you need at a time like this. The welcoming embrace of your family. Just tell me when to turn.”
He hadn’t said it but what Megan knew he meant was three more miles and he’d get this crazy woman out of his car and out of his life!
The drive was made in silence. As Megan was reluctant to get back on the main street, she guided him through the back roads, which made the drive twice as long, but if he noticed the discrepancy, he didn’t mention it.
Until recently Uncle Adrian had lived in a condominium right in the heart of Portland. Business problems had forced him to downgrade his life-style, so that now his address was rural. In fact, it would be almost impossible to imagine any place further removed from his former abode than his present dwelling, a little tract house so close to the street there wasn’t even room for a sidewalk.
Well, that wouldn’t last, not now that good old Robert had bailed the business out of a hole. Soon, thanks to Robert, Uncle Adrian would be moving back to town. That was, if Robert didn’t rescind his help and leave Uncle Adrian high and dry—Good grief, what in the world had made Megan think she’d be welcome here?
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