What’s happened so far: Ted’s old love, Miriam, is on the run from some seriously bad people and fears she’s been betrayed, as well. She has no where to turn. She decides she can only find Ted and throw herself on his mercy, knowing he probably won’t be happy to see her, given that she abandoned him and ran away without a word. She’s run across the country by train and car, appearing across the street from the old mansion he’s restoring in the middle of a epochal thunderstorm. While deciding whether to knock on his door, having multiple second thoughts about doing this, she’s knocked down by a nearby lightening strike and nearly drowned by the heaviest rain she’s ever experienced. With her last bit of strength, half conscious, she staggers up onto his porch and pounds on his door. He doesn’t recognize her at first, but then does.
She looked like a body that had been dragged along the bottom of a river, hitting sunken debris along the way and had been thrown up onto the porch and then groomed with a blowtorch. Her hair was plastered to her head and the face— which had an angry bruise on her forehead and the right side — was shockingly unrecognizable in the reflection from the glass of the front door. Water collected at her feet and she shook with tremors of shock and cold. She felt light-headed and sick at her stomach. A pool of red, blood diluted by rainwater, was growing at her feet.
After staring at her for what felt like hours—but was only a couple of seconds—his expression changed. He focused on her eyes, and his narrowed. Then, his face shifted from confusion to shock when he realized who it was standing there. His mouth opened and closed like a fish’s. He opened the door, but still couldn’t speak.
“Hi, T-t-ted,” Miriam said through chattering teeth, feeling her legs start to wobble. It sounded like someone else was talking. No food and not much sleep for nearly three days, and now electrocution, shock and hypothermia. She had the odd sensation of floating up near the porch light, watching herself and Ted facing one another. She looked half-dead, and her spirit had almost left her body, in fact. Her knees buckled and her eyes rolled back as she fell forward.
Just before she blacked out, she felt his arms catch her and inhaled the familiar smell of him. The vague ache she’d felt for many months escaped her like an exhalation of stale air held inside for far too long. “Oh, God….” She heard someone say in her voice from far away.
She felt arms catch her, hold her up. Then everything went dark.
Sunlight wormed itself through a gap in wooden shutters and crept across the floor until it found Miriam’s face. Like warm fingers, it traced the outlines of cheek and jaw, caressed the bruised face and lit the fine hairs on her cheek. A light breeze ruffled sheer lace curtains with edges embroidered in silk, and gradually nudged the shutters open. More sun brightened the room, and the spring aromas of warming earth and flowers began to fill the room.
The woman with many names and many secrets lay on her back under a fluffy white down comforter in a large, iron-framed Victorian bed with the head against a wall, in a corner room. On either side were two windows facing the morning sun. A third window in a wall to her left faced west, shade-dappled by a giant maple tree. All had two sets of shutters, top and bottom, all but one were closed. The latch on that one had not been secured tightly and it was through a slowly widening crack that the the sun and spring air pushed in and insistently pulled her from the darkness.
She stirred, images of herself floating up from the depths of a well toward a small circle of light above running through her awakening consciousness like fragments of an old movie. She delayed opening her eyes, her mind momentarily free of thought in that moment suspended between one world and the next. The warmth of the sun on her bruised skin was welcome and healing, and she savored it, content to pause and let her senses return.
Like an engine that had been flooded, her mind turned hesitantly and with effort. It was still muzzy and fitful, too rebellious to focus on any one thing at first. But as the moments passed, it gained strength and she pushed through the last of the water in the well and came back to herself, and knew she was safe.
As she had done as a child waking on a lazy Saturday morning in her mother’s house the kibbutz in the lower Gallilee, she played the waking game, kept her eyes closed and explored with her skin and nose and ears. Flowers bloomed there, too.
She was warm, that registered first. She was covered in something soft and light. She heard birdsong washing in through the window, and sniffed the clean scent of spring. Her ears strained to hear beyond the twittering chorus, and heard a car’s engine and the swish of tires on a street that wasn’t too far away, to her left. A bell in a nearby church sounded nine times. She didn’t consciously count the strikes, but as usual, some part of her brain just took care of that and reported it to her. This filled her with relief; perhaps she would be OK after all.
Her body began to remind her of less pleasant things: a dull ache from her forehead and the side of her head brought back the desperate struggles days before in Henry’s house, 3,000 miles away. The skin on her forehead also felt tight and hot, like a burn. Her right hip and thigh ached. She felt the lump over her eye, wincing at the pain that conjured up. She ran fingers lightly over her temple and felt the swelling and the harsh stubble of scorched hair. Her head was splitting; she remembered the lighting strike. A slight tingle and numbness in her fingertips made her rub them together, and sharp stabs of pain from two fingers told her of damage there.
After cataloguing the injuries, she pushed them away and opened her eyes. She saw a large room with tall windows, wood trim and a pleasant feeling. Turning her head to both sides hurt, but she took in the dimensions of the room. A big wooden door, closed, was directly opposite the foot of the bed. She sensed, rather than saw, the windows behind her. The shuttered window to her left let through the moving shadows of leaves from a large tree. There was a wingback chair and ottoman by the bed on her right, and a wooden antique dresser with a marble top and beveled mirror in a tall frame sat beside the door. The room was probably 15 or 20 feet on a side, and had the look and smell of being recently repainted, or remodeled. Everything looked too smooth and fresh to be as old as the house looked from the outside.
Miriam —that was her actual name, she reminded herself—tried to sit up but the heavy bruise to her hip and thigh had stiffened. She remembered the confusing last few hours in the rain and dark. A fragment of memory of herself at Ted’s door. A shaky image of a drowned and burned woman distorted in beveled glass. An old woman patting her cheek. A train ride. A long drive to get here. Hiding in a closet. A beating. It was all mixed up and confusing.
With a second effort, and grunting against the pain, she pushed herself up to a sitting position. She lifted the white comforter to see that she wore men’s pajamas. Lifting her hips, she slipped the elastic waistband down and saw a wrap around her thigh, the edges of a purple and red bruise peeking out from the edges. Higher up, another bruise from the corner of Henry’s counter top remained, but was darker and hurt less. Still, everything hurt, even her hair. She closed her eyes again, moaned and slumped back against the carved wooden headboard, the comforter falling down to her waist.
Alarmed, she pulled it up under her chin wondering if anyone else was there, watching.
She was alone and relaxed, but her eyes fell on the chair next and saw jeans, a sweatshirt, sandals, a bra and some lacy underwear laid out there, apparently for her. With one last suspicious glance around, she slid legs out from under the covers, dropped her feet gingerly to the carpet, limped to the chair and dressed. The things didn’t fit too badly, which made her absently wonder who had picked them out and put them there—and who had undressed her, washed her, dressed her wounds, and put her to bed. She was grateful, in any case.
She limped over to a closet door and peeked in. Nope, no women’s clothes in there, and there was nothing feminine on the dresser. It had the feeling of a guest room, then.
She walked slowly—testing her muscles, wincing at each step—to the western window, unlatched the shutter and looked out. It was one of those exquisite mornings in early spring where the air is soft and shares your relief that winter is finally over. The storm had gone, leaving a scene bright and washed clean like a morning at the beginning of the world. The sun blazed down on flowers bobbing in the breeze around foundations of houses across the street, and the whole scene looked so wholesome she couldn’t take it all in after what she’d been through. She closed her eyes again and leaned on the window sill, breathing deep the clear air and scents of blooms. There was a lilac somewhere near sending its fragrance up on on currents of air.
Turning, she stretched out her stride to loosen up her stiffness more, and made it to the door in seven slow steps. The door, solid, substantial oak like the rest of the room’s wide trim, sported old-style brass hinges and a doorknob with an elaborate filigree pattern pressed into it. She listened at the door for a moment. Hearing nothing but with habitual caution, she opened the door a few inches and saw a wide hallway with doors— to other bedrooms?— another hallway to her right, at right angles to the one she was examining. In the same direction was a set of stairs leading to the floor above. At her end of the hallway, opposite the door, a wide staircase lead down.
This place must go on in all sorts of directions, she mused, intrigued. There was no one in sight, but she smelled coffee—her drug of choice— bacon and other incredible kitchen smells. Her stomach lurched and rumbled, reminding her that she hadn’t eaten for a long time.
Time to go downstairs. After all, she mused, blushing a little at the thought, it was probably Ted who cleaned her up, bound her wounds and put her to bed last night. He’d gotten to meet her then, in a manner of speaking. The thought was not entirely unpleasant.
She walked toward the stairs that lead toward the smells of breakfast, taking in the details. Her near-photographic memory was both a natural gift and part of her training. Very little escaped notice and was filed away automatically. A part of her brain noted details, such as a paint can left in the hall corner, a look of recently finished walls and floors, new oriental carpet runners in every direction–and she could smell fresh paint and plaster. She could tell that this had been a major restoration. There were plaster walls, oak trim everywhere, and a marquetry floor with two or three kinds of wood. The Ted she remembered could never have decorated this on his own, so he had either hired someone pretty good, or there was another woman in the picture.
To her surprise, the latter thought sent a mini-tremor of jealousy through her. She shook her head.
“Hardly have a right to be jealous, do you?” she scolded herself under her breath. “None of your business now.” She clamped down on the emotions that had stirred and started down the stairs, her lips set in a thin line. “We’ll see what’s what, first.” Little red spots remained on her cheeks.
The plush pile of the carpet runner down the center of the stairway silenced her footfalls. She moved deliberately, holding onto the railing next to the wall, unable to reach across the width of the stairs to touch the other railing. It was a long way down—13 steps, she noted automatically. At a glance, she logged the number of spindles in the railing—26—and that one halfway down was slightly turned. She corrected that to match all the others on her way past.
The enticing aroma of coffee got stronger by the time she reached the bottom, but the stiffness in her legs made it slow going. By the time she neared the bottom, though, she was moving more purposefully. She paused on the last step to look around and listen, sniffing the air, then stepped down onto a matching area carpet on more fine wood flooring. Normally unimpressed with wealth, she was becoming aware that this place, while old, had “good bones,” as her father would have said. The place exuded 19th Century quality without shouting about it.
She stood for a moment at the bottom of the steps where a long central hallway widened as it stretched to the right and left. She took a few steps to the right and passed a large room with pocket doors partially opened, and then another larger room in the front of the house. A short hallway led to an outside door on the right. On the left were doors closed on spaces she couldn’t guess the uses of, and then another front room, this one obviously appointed as a library with floor-to-ceiling bookcases and a fireplace with an elaborate carved black marble mantle. Wingback chairs flanked the fireplace, each with a round side table of oak in an older style. A built-in window seat stretched across the front, with more bookshelves built in underneath.
To the left, at the end of the room that would easily hold two of her last apartment, was another set of nine-foot-tall pocket doors. She stepped over to the center and moved them apart with surprisingly small effort, as they were probably 300 pounds of thick old wood each. But the balance was so good that they slid apart easily. She stepped through into a dining room. An antique table of highly polished dark wood stretched half of the length of the room, with ten high-back chairs of matching color and style tucked neatly all around, four on each side and one at each end. A matching sideboard sat in the back corner, and another marble fireplace, slightly smaller that the one in the front room and faced with white, veined marble and bright brass andirons, sat in the middle of the outside wall, flanked by a pair of eight-foot-tall bay windows. Even with no lights burning, the room was ablaze with sunlight.
Stepping to a side door, she opened it and found herself back in the hallway, near the stairs she’d descended a few moments before. She heard the clatter of dishes down the hall to the right, and saw someone move across a doorway.
She took a deep breath and moved toward the sounds and the smell of coffee and food. The coffee would help with the headache and she couldn’t resist the allure of the aroma any longer.
At the threshold, she stopped again and watched Ted’s back as he worked on something at the stove. A kitchen table to the right was set for two, and more sunlight was bursting into the room from another big bay window beside it. A lanky chocolate Lab had caught her scent already, and raised his head and was watching her from his spot under the table. He unfolded himself from the floor and ambled over, tail wagging like he’d known her all his life.
She scratched behind his ears and looked up, realizing Ted hadn’t heard anything yet over the music of a radio he had on.
He looked different around the edges, but the same at the center: A little thinner, perhaps, but with some grey at the temples that hadn’t been there a year ago. The hair was shorter. He was humming along tunelessly like she remembered, something that sounded like a mixture of an old Stones tune and a little Count Basie, and completely unrelated to the song that was playing. She smiled. Typical. He wore a short-sleeved yellow polo shirt and khaki slacks, well-worn moccasins and no socks.
His arms were tanned and looked better muscled than she remembered, as did the shoulders that looked broader and solid under the shirt’s fabric. The back of his neck was ruddy from the sun. Overall, he was in better shape and had lost the flabby, disheveled, half-crazed look of his life in New York. There, he’d lived mainly on adrenaline, beer, coffee, cold pizza and vending machine food and more beer. Whatever else had happened, moving here seemed to have been good for him. She approved.
A bright red cardinal landed on a branch of a small tree just outside the window, looked sharply around a few times with a combative manner, and sounded the penetrating clear call notes that warned any competitors that he was master of this territory now.
She heard the powerful song from outside and watched him, comb flashing angrily, and felt the pride and challenge of his brash music of survival go through her. She did not realize Ted had turned at the cardinal’s call, as well, and had caught sight of her from the corner of his eye. He put a skillet down and turned the gas flame off. He switched off the radio and turned and stood, waiting. His face was not unfriendly, but impassive.
She turned her head as the music stopped and looked into his eyes for the first time in more than a year. She opened her mouth once, then closed it.
The silence stretched.
“Hungry?,” he said, turning back to the stove.
All she could do was nod once, suddenly shy and tongue-tied, then realized he couldn’t see her. The lab bumped her hand with his head, wanting her to pet him some more. When she didn’t, he sniffed her fingertips and touched them with just the tip of his tongue.
Ted pointed to the table with his hand and arm outstretched, without turning. “Why don’t you sit down. I’ll get things together. And—“ He paused, turning from the waist up and looking at her a long second “— we’ll eat.”
As he dialed up the gas flame under the skillet, he started whistling that tuneless tune again.
She nodded to his back, felt foolish, then walked over to the table and sat at the end so she could watch him. The dog escorted her, side pressed against her legs slightly.
Ted put eggs and bacon on a platter, poured juice and two coffees, put it all on a big tray and carried it to the table. He put a glass of orange juice in front of her and the platter in the middle of the table. Abandoning any pretense or etiquette in sudden, ravenous hunger, she pulled the empty plate in front of her, grabbed the platter and scooped eggs and meat onto it, then slices of toast while he poured her coffee. He moved to the other end of the table and pulled the platter to his side and helped himself. He put the pot of coffee halfway between them.
Miriam made the food disappear with efficiency. He watched in fascination as so much food went into such a small person so quickly. She ate one helping without looking at him, chewing. He pushed the platter back to her and she loaded her plate up again. She drank the juice and coffee gratefully, then poured another of each. Ted ate without a word passing between them, finished and sat back, sipped coffee and looked out the window while she ate. His thoughts were tripping over themselves.
He had seen her the night before, of course, but she looked more like the accident victim she was than the remarkably restored woman at his table. He hadn’t been affected by her nakedness in the ways he would have been at almost any other time. Besides, Rose had been there and helped clean Miriam up, bandage her wounds and get her into bed. Rose had picked out the clothes.
He reflected on that scene, wondering if he’d have been as composed and business-like if Rose’s ex-husband had dropped in out of the deluge, babbling incoherently, the way Miriam had talked in her delirium as they worked on her together.
Not bloody likely, he knew. He’d have been more likely to stop the yammering of the man by putting a pillow over his face and holding it there.
But not Rose. She was full of surprises, that one.
But the woman he’d once loved to the point of insanity, the woman who had run away without a word, was sitting at his table.
He felt equal parts anger, intense relief, and an odd flutter of the heart.
What was he going to do now?