Lucy And The Stoneñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî
Lucy and the Stone
This book is dedicated to two writers’ groups that provided great ideas and even greater hospitality: First, my daughter Sarah and her fifth-grade class at the University School. And second, Peg McCool and her Friday critique group in Tacoma—Carol, Micky, Mary, Melinda and Anita…and Charlie, of course. Many thanks!
He caught the phone on the fifth ring, breathing heavily, swearing silently. “Yeah, McCloud here!”
“John Stone, is that you?” Aunt Alice. Alice Hardisson was the only person in the world who called him John Stone.
“How are you, Aunt Alice? It’s been a long time.”
“I’m right well, thank you. I understand you were in the hospital. I hope you’re feelin’ better now.” The quiet, well-bred Southern voice waited politely for him to fill her in on all the pertinent details.
Now, how the hell could she have known that? Other than the occasional family funeral, when he happened to be in the country, and the basket of jams and jellies she ordered sent to his mail drop every year at Christmas, there had been little contact between them for years.
Unless there’d been something in the news. He’d been in no condition to know or care at the time. “I’m fine, Aunt Alice. Or as fine as a man can be after overdosing on hospital food. How’s Liam? Still hunting rabbits on his day off?” Liam was the Hardissons’ butler. He was seventy-five if he was a day, and he’d been Stone’s mainstay in the years he had spent in the old Hardisson mansion after his parents had been killed.
“Liam’s retired now. Mellie died last year, and I thought it best to let him spend his last days with his grandchildren.”
Best for whom, Aunt Alice? Stone thought wryly. Despite the code of noblesse oblige that was bred into the bones of women like Alice Hardisson, his aunt seldom put herself out to any great extent for any interest but her own. Unless it was for her only child.
Stone himself was a case in point.
His mother and Alice had been sisters. Stone’s parents had been killed by a drunk driver when he was six and a half years old, and Alice had taken him in. Noblesse oblige. Her own son, his cousin Billy, had been five then.
But while Alice, accompanied occassionally by Billy and his nanny, had traveled to Scotland for the salmon fishing, to Paris for the fashion hunting or to some spa in Arizona twice a year for whatever benefits she derived there, Stone had invariably been left with Liam and Mellie.
Noblesse oblige. Take in needy kinfolk, put food in their mouths, a roof over their heads and inquire graciously once or twice a year to be sure there’s nothing more they need.
And as soon as they’re weaned, pack them off to boarding school.
“Are you in town, Aunt Alice?” Stone asked, hoping she wasn’t.
“No, I’m still down here in Atlanna.”
She always called it Atlanna. With her gentle, unconscious arrogance, she probably spelled it that way.
“How’s Billy? Still thinking about making a run for the senate one of these days?”
“Well now, that’s what I called you about, John Stone. I reckon you heard Billy got hisself mixed up with this perfectly awful woman a while back and ended up married to her.”
Stone lowered himself carefully onto the sofa and tucked the phone against his neck. “I seem to remember seeing an announcement.”
“I had Ella Louise mail out announcements so it wouldn’t look like such a hole-in-the-wall affair, but I knew it wouldn’t last. Naturally, I made the best of it for Billy’s sake, but she just wasn’t Our Kind of People.”
Stone smiled grimly. Very few people made Alice’s list of Our Kind of People. He himself had certainly fallen far short, despite their kinship.
“I took her in hand for poor Billy’s sake. The girl had no more sense of how to go on than a stray cat. All that hair, and those cheap clothes! Naturally I did my best to show her how to dress and speak and how to act around decent folk without embarrassing herself.”
Without embarrassing Alice Hardisson, Stone interpreted, making a noncommittal murmur. Alice would be the mother-in-law from hell, no matter who Billy married. Stone could almost find it in his heart to be sorry for the poor girl, but then, any female with no more sense than to marry Bill Hardisson probably deserved what she got.
He picked up the monologue still in progress. “Been hearin’ these awful rumors. Nothing in the papers yet, thank goodness, but I’m afraid she’s out to make mischief. I can’t think of anyone else who would do such a thing.” She sighed. “John Stone, I’m worried.”
“Why’d he marry her? Was she pregnant?”
“Good heavens, certainly not! Billy has better sense than to get hisself involved with a tramp like Lucy Dooley!”
“I thought you said he married her. That’s about as involved as you can get.”
“He’s just too trustin’ for his own good. Poor Billy. When a flashy tramp like that Dooley woman keeps flauntin’ herself at the club pool, wearin’ little more than she came into the world with—”
“That’s where he met her? The club?”
“That’s what I said, didn’t I? Oh, I’ll admit the girl has a common type of looks that men seem to like—she certainly took my poor boy in, but before they’d even been married six months, she showed her true colors. Poor Billy, he pleaded with her to behave herself. But when she started carryin’ on in front of all their friends—why, he had to ask her to leave.”
“They’re divorced now, I take it. So what’s the problem?”
“Well, naturally he divorced her. At least she had the decency to leave town, but we’re afraid now that he’s runnin’ for the state senate, she’ll come back and cause trouble.”
“Well, for goodness’ sake, John Stone, for money! What else would her kind want?”
“You mean that flock of tame lawyers you keep on a leash didn’t sew her fingers together before they let Billy marry her?”
“I was out of the country at the time, and that girl had poor Billy so besotted he just up and married her without makin’ her sign doodlysquat! Lord knows what she threatened to do, but he ended up paying her two hundred thousand dollars a year for three years just to stay out of Georgia. Poor Billy, he’s always been too softhearted for his own good.”
Or too softheaded. Six hundred thousand was a lot of loot!
“Now that the payments have ended, we’re afraid she’s goin’ to try and get more by threatenin’ to go to the papers with her vicious lies. She knows good and well he’s lookin’ to go to Washin’ton after one or two terms in Atlanna. That’s just the sort of thing her kind would do. Like all those hussies who end up on the television by threatenin’ decent men in high places. You know who I mean, John Stone?”
“I seem to recall a few such incidents, but why would you—”
“I just told you—there are already rumors circulatin’ around town. They can’t have come from any other source, because everybody here loves Billy. He’s always been a good boy.”
Stone grimaced. Billy loved Billy. Aunt Alice loved Billy. The rest of the world probably knew him for what he was—the spoiled, immature product of privilege and neglect. Not for the first time, Stone was glad he’d broken with the family at the age of fourteen, when he’d been shipped off to military school, and that it had never been “convenient” for him to spend much time with his aunt after that.
“Exactly what is it you think I can do?” he asked.
She didn’t beat around the bush. “I understand you’ve been hurt right bad, and you’re goin’ to be laid up for a while. I thought you might like to—”
“You thought I might like to go down to Atlanta and take her out for you?”
“What? Don’t be foolish, John Stone. If you want to take her out, that’s your concern, but I warn you, she’s not Our Kind of People.”
“I didn’t mean– That is, take her out means—” He gave up. He spoke three languages fluently and got by in a couple more. He had never spoken his aunt’s language, and probably never would.
“It just so happens that I’ve arranged for this woman to spend the summer at a place called Coronoke—it’s a little speck of an island off the North Carolina coast. I understand there aren’t any telephones there, and certainly no reporters, so I thought if you could go along and kind of keep an eye on her, just make sure she doesn’t get up to any more mischief—”
“Whoa! Aunt Alice, I don’t even know this woman, and you want me to be her jailer?”
“Don’t raise your voice to me, John Stone. I didn’t say that. All I ask is that you go down there and take advantage of the cottage I’ve leased in your name. You don’t have to let her know who you are—in fact, it’s probably better if you don’t—but you can keep her entertained so she’ll forget about causin’ trouble for Billy, at least until after his weddin’.”
“Oh. Did I forget to mention that Billy’s gettin’ married again in August? This lovely girl—she’s the granddaughter of old Senator Houghton—”
“In other words, you want me to pen this woman up on a deserted island– What did you call it?”
“Coronoke, and it’s certainly not deserted.”
“Right. Pen her up, don’t let her near a phone, and if she makes any suspicious moves, sic the federales on her, right?”
By the time he finished, Alice had very politely hung up on him. Feeling worse than he had when he’d come out of the hospital five days earlier, Stone called her back and, after apologizing, found himself reluctantly agreeing to finish up his recuperation on the island of Coronoke.
And, incidentally, to do his best to distract the greedy little hustler who was out to ruin Billy’s chances for marital happiness and political success.
Actually, he’d sort of had other plans, but...
“How’d you find out I’d been in the hospital, Aunt Alice?”
“Carrie Lee Hunsucker’s great nephew works for the Constitution. Carrie Lee belongs to the Wednesday Morning Music Club.”
And he’d thought he had contacts.
“I’m doing this partly for your sake, John Stone, because I understand you don’t even have a decent place to live. This way, you can just lie around until you’re feelin’ well enough to go back to work doin’ whatever it is you do these days.”
Whatever it was he did. As if she didn’t know. Why else had she tracked him down and sicced him on some bimbo who was out to ruin her son’s political career before it even got off the ground? Which just might, incidentally, be the best thing that could happen to the state of Georgia.
On the other hand, he did need a vacation. Gazing around at the hotel room he had taken when he’d left the hospital, Stone compared it to a cottage on a small island somewhere down South. The room was about average for a residential hotel. He’d bunked in far worse, under far worse conditions, but now that he thought about it, soaking up the sun on a private beach didn’t sound half bad, either.
“I guess I can do that,” he’d said finally, adding a halfhearted thanks.
“You don’t have to thank me, John Stone. It’s the least I can do for my own sister’s boy.”
Stone hung up the phone with the uncomfortable feeling that he’d just been hooked, gaffed and landed.
The first day belonged to Stone, and he was determined not to waste a single salt-cured, sun-soaked minute of it. By tomorrow the Dooley woman would probably be here. Which meant his baby-sitting duties would begin. But for now there was nothing to keep him from lying on an inflated inner tube, his naked feet dangling in the cool waters of Pamlico Sound, while a half-empty beer bottle rested on the bright pink scar on his belly.
Coronoke. Translated, it had to mean paradise. Stone had never heard of the place. It wasn’t even on the map! But now that he’d discovered it, he fully intended to spend some serious downtime here. Inhaling, exhaling—quietly growing moss on his north side.
Not to mention keeping the Dooley woman from embarrassing his aunt and bleeding her dry. As far as Stone was concerned, Billy could clean up his own messes, but Billy wasn’t the only one who stood to get hurt this time. Women of his aunt’s generation were poorly equipped to deal with the tabloid press and sleaze TV. It would kill her to have the Hardisson name dragged through that kind of mire. If it was in his power to prevent it, he would.
Saltwater dried on his shoulders, and he flexed them, liking the contrast between the sun’s heat and the water’s coolness. Liking the feeling of utter and complete relaxation that had begun seeping into his bones even before he’d checked into his cottage, stashed his gear and stepped out of his shoes.
Stone was an accredited journalist. Affiliated for the past nine years with IPA, he had covered most of the major conflicts and natural disasters around the globe. Although he tried to avoid political campaigns—most of which were natural disasters of major proportions. A guy had to draw the line somewhere.
He’d been covering a humanitarian aid convoy in East Africa when a stray bullet from a sniper’s gun had struck the gas tank of the vehicle he was riding in. His photographer had been killed outright in the explosion. His driver, who’d been thrown clear, had broken his little finger. Stone ended up with a severe concussion, several broken ribs, a torn lung and an assortment of scrap steel embedded in various parts of his anatomy.
He’d been incredibly lucky. He could have ended up spread over several acres of desert. Instead, here he was a few months later, armed with nothing more lethal than a pair of binoculars and a birding guide, floating around on an inner tube, soaking up Carolina sunshine and watching a squadron of pelicans flap past.
At least, he thought they were pelicans. He was going to have to bone up on his Audubon if he didn’t want to blow his cover. He’d considered bringing along his laptop to work on the series of articles he’d been doing on spec. One of the major syndicates had put out a few feelers after his series on archaeological piracy, and he’d been flattered...and interested.
At the last minute he’d decided against it. He wasn’t ready to go back to work. His brain was still lagging about two beats behind his body, possibly because he hadn’t had a real vacation in more years than he could remember.
Or possibly because he’d come so damned close to checking out permanently, he’d been forced to face up to what his life had become.
Which was empty. No ties, no commitments, nothing to show for his thirty-seven years other than a few yellowed scrapbooks and a few awards packed away in storage with his old tennis racquet.
In that frame of mind, he had impulsively put a call through to a guy he hadn’t heard from in over a year. Reece was the brother of the woman Stone had almost married once upon a time. A woman who’d finally had the good sense to marry some decent nine-to-fiver who had offered her the home and kids she wanted. Stone had lost touch with Shirley Stocks, but from time to time he still heard from her brother. The kid had thought Stone was some kind of hero, always flying off to the world’s hot spots at a moment’s notice.
Reece was currently studying journalism at UNC. As it appeared that Stone would soon be headed south to the Old North State, it had seemed like a good opportunity to get together.
Bird-watching! Thank God Reece didn’t know the depths to which his hero had sunk. It had been his aunt’s idea, the bird-watching cover. Evidently she’d mentioned it when she’d reserved the cottage for the summer, and the real estate agent had mailed him a bundle of birding data along with directions for finding the place. Rather than bother to explain that he didn’t know a hummingbird from a hammerlock, and couldn’t care less, he’d let it stand. But this whole drill was beginning to strike him as slightly bizarre. Not to mention slightly distasteful.
Reluctantly, Stone began paddling himself back to shore. His shoulders, his thighs and his belly were starting to tingle. Sun had never been a particular problem before, but a few months of holding down a hospital bed had a way of thinning a guy’s skin right down to the nerve endings.
The cottage wasn’t luxurious, but it was comfortable. Better yet, it was quiet. Best of all, it was his alone for the next two months—books on the shelf, cigarette burn on the pine table, rust-stained bathtub and all.
All it lacked was a Home Sweet Home sampler nailed to the wall. He’d already taken the liberty of rearranging some of the furniture and was considering dragging a cedar chaise longue into the living room from the deck, just because he liked the way it smelled.
Home sweet home. Maybe it was time he thought about getting himself something more permanent than a mail drop, a storage shed and a series of hotel rooms. The last real home he could remember—and the memory was fading like a cheap postcard—was a white frame house with a wraparound porch and three pecan trees in the backyard that were home to several platoons of squirrels.
Decatur, Georgia. They had moved there when his father had gotten a promotion, just in time for Stone to enter the first grade. Before the year was out, that portion of his life had come to an abrupt end.
As for the Hardissons’ Buckhead mansion, the only time he had felt at home there had been when his aunt was off on one of her jaunts and Mellie had let him eat in the kitchen with the help. He could still remember sitting on an overturned dishpan in a chair and stuffing himself with her Brunswick stew and blackberry dumplings.
Jeez! When was the last time he’d thought of all that? This was what happened when a guy had too much time on his hands, Stone told himself. Ancient history had never been his bag.
After making himself a couple of sardine sandwiches and forking his fingers around a cold beer, he wandered out onto the screened deck. Still wearing his trunks, he took a hefty bite of sandwich and turned his thoughts to his unlikely assignment. He’d been in the hospital when Billy had won the primary last month, else he might have heard something. Not that Georgia politicians were of any great interest at IPA. At least, not since the Carter days.
God, the mind boggled. Stone hadn’t seen his cousin since their great-uncle Chauncey Stone’s funeral in Calhoun, several years ago. Billy had been flushed and smelling of bourbon at eleven in the morning. He had escorted his mother into the church, but Stone had seen the bimbo waiting in his red Corvette farther down the street.
Family. Funny how it could influence you in ways you never even suspected. He didn’t particularly like his cousin. He didn’t know if he loved his aunt or not, but he’d always recognized her strength, and strength was something Stone had been taught to admire. Strength of character. Strength of purpose. His aunt had both. And when he thought about her at all, he admired her for what she was, and didn’t dwell too long on what she wasn’t.
Sipping his beer, Stone let his mind wander unfettered across the tapestry of the past thirty-seven years. After a while the empty bottle slipped to the floor and he began to snore softly in counterpoint to the cheerful sound of screeching gulls, scolding crows and gently lapping water.
* * *
Lucy watched the odometer roll over a major milestone. She flexed her arms one at a time, then flexed her tired back and wondered how far it was to the next rest area. She’d been driving for eight solid hours, stopping only for gas and junk food, and to wolf down a bacon cheeseburger and a large diet drink for lunch. By the time she’d gotten as far as Kernersville, she was already having second thoughts, but it was too late to turn back, even if she’d wanted to. Her gas was turned off, her mail and paper deliveries stopped.
Alice Hardisson didn’t owe her a thing. Lucy knew she should have had more pride than to accept the offer, but one didn’t argue with a Hardisson. Not argue and win, at any rate. Fortunately, she had learned early on to be a gracious loser. Or, at the very least, to know when the game was lost.
And the game was lost. Alice had won. Surrendering to the inevitable, Lucy vowed to enjoy every minute of her unexpected free vacation, and if that made her a parasite, she’d just have to grin and bear it. She couldn’t even remember the last vacation she had taken. Her honeymoon trip with Billy didn’t count. That had been a revelation, not a vacation.
Guiltily, she knew she was looking forward to it, too. A whole summer of swimming, sleeping late, staying up all night to read all those juicy escapist books she never had time to read during the school year.
And no more frozen dinners. No more school cafeteria! She was going to eat fried corned-beef hash with catsup and onions for breakfast and fried banana sandwiches for supper, and work off all the calories by walking and swimming.
Who said you can’t have it all?
What’s more, she was going to play her guitar until she built up a set of calluses that would shatter bricks. And she’d sing along, even if she couldn’t carry a tune. Which she couldn’t.
The night Alice had called, Lucy had been feeling mildewy. Rain always depressed her, and it had been raining for over a week. Studying the help-wanted ads for a summer job hadn’t improved her mood, either.ñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî