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Authors: Lori Copeland

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BOOK: A Perfect Love
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Russell and Barbara used to talk about getting their own place when they had children, but children seemed to be a touchy subject these days. The fact that Russell and Barbara remained childless after three years was downright baffling, since Floyd often threatened to turn the water hose on the pair when he caught them smoochin' in the parlor like a couple of heathens. He also referred to Russell as the “resident mooch” until Cleta made him stop.

The boy had been improving, though. Since the Christmas Eve service, a wonderful time of sharing for the entire town, Russell seemed to be looking at church in a new light, and the next Sunday found him perched in the family pew, where a God-fearing man should be. Cleta had been praying for such a change, and it warmed her heart to see the boy mature a little.

She enjoyed the kids living upstairs. She loved spending time with her only child, and she and Barbara had always been close. The house seemed as empty as a storm cellar on a sunny day without her, and Barbara wasn't well, no matter what Russell said. She was delicate—always had been. Men didn't understand delicacy in a woman, but a mother did. Especially Cleta, who'd had her fair share of ailments without the comfort of a mama's hand. Her own mother had been as cold as kraut; Cleta couldn't remember ever receiving a hug from the severe New England woman.

Cleta's closest friend, Vernie Bidderman, owner of Mooseleuk Mercantile, got right peeved with Cleta when she compared her raising to Barbara's. Vernie accused Cleta of not cutting the apron strings, an accusation that couldn't be any more off the mark. A parent had every right to worry about her child, and a parental obligation to be concerned. Cleta wasn't going to be like her mother and not give a fig about her child's welfare.

“Bull.” The last time they'd had this conversation— last week or so—Vernie had crossed her arms and stared down her nose at Cleta. “We've been friends since before you conceived Barbara and I'm telling you it's time to give up. You can't continue to direct, control, and interfere in your daughter's life.”

“As
if I would!”

“You would. You do.”

“Why, that's a big fat lie, Veronica Bidderman!” Cleta slammed the bag of sugar she was about to buy onto the counter. If Vernie was going to be ornery, she'd go to Ogunquit for her supplies.

“It's the truth, Cleta.” Vernie picked up the sugar and set it back on the shelf. “You'll never give up criticizing and trying to run that girl's life until you're made to stop.”

Words bubbled up like lava from a volcano. “Barbara's my child. What would you know about children?”

Cleta felt the sting of guilt after that remark, knowing the barb went deep. Stanley Bidderman, Vernie's husband, had run off twenty years ago and only returned last month. His untimely departure had left both Biddermans childless and resentful.

“You're only jealous of how close Barbara and I are,” said Cleta.

Vernie took a deep breath. “I won't deny that I would have loved to have a daughter. But though I don't, I still have eyes, and I see a suffocating parent who doesn't know it's time to turn loose. It's time, Cleta. Let your daughter go.”

Cleta choked on the words that rose in her throat. Why, Vernie had some nerve! Cleta and Floyd were only helping the kids get a good start. What parent wouldn't do the same? And she and Floyd were certainly willing and able. Why, during the winter they would rattle around in their old house like clothespins in a milk bottle without Russell and Barbara.

Vernie sniffed. “Barbara's a grown woman.”

“And your definition of a grown woman is—?”

Vernie crossed her arms over her ample chest. “Anyone old enough to get married and vote should be responsible enough to pay their own rent. Russell makes more than you and Floyd, Cleta. Face the truth—you're keeping the kids dependent because you don't think they're capable of handling difficulty if it comes along. But running interference for Barbara will stunt her ability to figure things out on her own. And Russell—well, I'm surprised Russell's put up with you as long as he has. If he wasn't such a good boy he would have walked out two years ago.”

Cleta's face flamed. “Walked out! On Barbara?” She sputtered. “Thank you very much, but I'll do my shopping in Ogunquit this week. Nobody there is going to tell me how to raise my child.”

Vernie shook her head. “Shop wherever you like, Cleta, but you'd best listen to me before it's too late. Set your child free. Offer Barbara the opportunity to meet life on its own terms before she turns on you.”

Cleta studied the shopkeeper from lowered lids. “You've been ordering those psychology books on the Internet again, haven't you?”

Vernie eyed her sternly. “Cleta.”

“What?”

“Learn to knit or something, but butt out of Barbara's and Russell's life.”

Vernie's stinging censure still rang in Cleta's ears. Well, Cleta had all she could handle without taking up knitting, thank you very much. She was a proud businesswoman who kept her guests happy and satisfied. During the tourist season she rose every day before dawn to bake sausage-and-egg casseroles, slice fresh fruit, and supply hot muffins warm from the oven. She brewed expensive flavored coffees like crème brûlée and tiramisu, and served her gourmet muffins in lined wicker baskets with sweet churned butter. Such niceties kept the guests returning to the Baskahegan Bed and Breakfast and the inn operating in the black.

Knitting, indeed.

She'd leave that up to Birdie Wester, and Cleta would see to her own doings whether it suited Vernie or not.

Clearing her thoughts, Cleta picked up the plate of bacon and waved it under Barbara's nose. “You're eating like a bird this morning. Have some meat.”

She watched, pleased, as Barbara sleepily pulled four pieces onto her plate.

“Well . . . I'm not very hungry.”

There it was—the whine.

Floyd complained about Barbara's whining, but who wouldn't sound a wee bit edgy at this hour of the morning? Of course, Cleta was used to the early hour, and so was Floyd. He couldn't sleep past sunup if Cleta tied him in the bed, but Barbara was a good sleeper, and had been since infancy. Left undisturbed, Barbara could stay in bed until midafternoon, and often did. But then the poor thing had a terrible time going to sleep at night. Barbara didn't come alive until Leno was on, then she'd get interested in movies on the Lifetime movie channel; sometimes it'd be three or four o'clock in the morning before the child could unwind enough to sleep. Russell was ready to get up about the time Barbara was ready to turn in. If children ever came along . . .

Cleta shook her head. Barbara wouldn't know day from night if she had a baby who got her up at all hours.

She eyed Floyd, who was slurping his coffee. “What's on your docket today, Floyd?”

“Thought I'd go down and fire up the truck. Then I got to study.”

Cleta drew a deep breath. Floyd had been taking a correspondence course in mechanical engineering for the past several weeks. Though she was glad he'd found something to do, his studies had reinforced his annoying fixation on things mechanical.

Her husband had a virtual love affair going with the community fire truck. As faithful as the sunrise, he went down to crank the engine once a day in order to keep the motor in top shape. There hadn't been much call for the fire truck lately—none, actually, since last October when a gull snatched Pastor Wickam's toupee and the awful hairpiece landed in a pine tree.

“Got to keep 'er running smooth.” Floyd reached for the saltshaker. “Do you know what a vehicle like that would cost nowadays if we had to replace 'er?”

Cleta didn't venture a guess because she knew. Floyd reminded her and the entire town at every monthly meeting.

“Nine hundred fifty thousand dollars,” Floyd supplied.

“Hmm,” Cleta said around a mouthful of toast.

“If that one goes on us, we'll never get another.”

Cleta sighed, then, like a good wife, mumbled her line. “Did we pay that much for this one?”

“No. Got this one at a steal but only because it was ten years old. Still paid over three hundred thousand bucks.”

Cleta rolled her eyes toward the ceiling. “That much?” She hated this conversation, but they had it nearly every morning. Why couldn't Floyd find a new topic?

Her husband nodded. “Needs new rubber, though.”

“Ayuh. New tires. So you've said.” Again and again and again . . .

“Daddy,” Barbara whined.

“I know, I know.” Floyd leaned over and pinched Barbara's cheek. “You gals don't like to talk business so early in the morning. But you have a fire with bad tires and see if you don't change your mind, little missy.”

Russell pointed toward the plate in the center of the table. “Pass the eggs.”

Sighing, Cleta handed him the plate.

As sunlight streamed through the tall window of her bedroom, Barbara leaned against the window frame and stared past the dock toward the sea where her husband worked. Was he thinking of her as he baited and tossed out his traps? If so, was he missing her, or enjoying the peace and quiet away from this house?

Unable to face the disloyal thought, Barbara reined in her gaze, settling on the mulched flower beds that lined the front walkway. Those flower beds were Micah Smith's pride and joy, though he had little to do with them in the winter. In summertime, the Baskahegan Bed and Breakfast was the town showplace, gardens of annuals and perennials
in full bloom. Beds of old-fashioned apothecary rose dotted the spacious lawn facing the Atlantic. The flowery fireworks of scarlet salvia, the eccentric mop tops of bee balm, and mounds of cloverlike globe amaranth lined the red brick walks with friendly greetings for the tourists.

“Look,” some woman would inevitably exclaim as she bent to fondle a siren-red clump of Lawrence verbena. “Have you ever seen anything more heavenly?”

Micah loved flowers, and Barbara was fond of saying he possessed a green thumb plus four green fingers. No one could wield a trowel, fork, shovel, and rubber pail with such astounding effect. But island winters were merciless, and once the leaves and flower beds were raked and the outdoor furniture stored in the shed behind the B&B, Micah had little to occupy his time other than leading music at the church and enjoying coffee and doughnuts at the bakery with Abner. That morning habit, Micah declared years ago, was proving disastrous to his waistline, so he wanted to earn his keep by housecleaning in the winter months.

When Cleta had protested that cleaning wasn't Micah's job, he only smiled and said he liked to feel needed. So now the forty-somethingish gardener helped with the vacuuming and cleaning in winter, attending to each guest room with as much dedication and precision as he gave his beloved flower beds. Like clockwork, he cleaned twelve rooms—thirteen if you counted the attic bedroom, used only for overflow—five guest rooms and three baths upstairs, and the Lansdowns' bedroom, kitchen, parlor, and bath located downstairs. Each Monday morning Micah started at the top of the house and worked his way down, rarely finishing before noon on Thursday. The high-pitched whine of his vacuum cleaner reverberated along the sixteen-foot ceilings until Barbara declared she was going to frow the cord.

In the church, the house, and the garden, Micah was a perfectionist. He didn't just sprinkle tender plants or vacuum the center of guest rooms. He pulled out heavy chairs, beds, and nightstands with the same diligence he sowed, weeded, and fertilized every inch of the lawn. The lively man went about his mission like a sugared-up General Patton, hellbent on annihilating dust mites, powdery mildew, black spot, and rust. Occasionally his trained eye would catch sight of the dreaded rose mosiac fungi and life wouldn't be worth living around the B&B until he'd stamped out the blight.

Now Micah and his Hoover were bearing down on Barbara, roaring down the carpeted hallway.

“If it's no trouble, I'll do your room and be out of your way soon!” Micah shouted above the siphoning noise. The Hoover mowed through a path of resistance, catching the hem of a window drape. The fabric corkscrewed up the shaft, the wall screws straining to hold the curtain rod. Micah quickly stepped on the power button and shut off the machine. “Not a problem,” he said, turning the vacuum on its side.

Tightening the belt of her robe, Barbara walked to the doorway of her bedroom and leaned against the framing. Oblivious, Micah patiently proceeded to undo the snarl.

She would have heaved the cleaner out the window and told her mom to buy new drapes.

Sighing, she folded her arms and caught her reflection in the antique hallway mirror. What happened to the dewy-eyed twenty-year-old girl Russell had married? She was nowhere in evidence today. The image that stared back at her had allergy-puffed eyes behind thick glasses, no makeup, and thin lips. The swinging, sassy haircut Russell had thought cute a year ago now hung like linguini against her pale features.

She leaned forward, making white indentations on her cheeks with her thumb and forefinger. Water retention from too many nitrates. She really should lay off the bacon.

“Micah? Why would any man in his right mind marry me?”

The gardener, absorbed in salvaging the drape, glanced up. His brown-eyed gaze softened. “What a question, Barbara. Any man would be proud to have you for his wife.”

“Oh, stop it.” She leaned against the banister and stared at the ceiling. Micah always had a kind word for her—especially when she didn't want to believe him. “Look at me! I'm an ugly, overweight, water-retentive wretch, and I don't see how Russell stands me.”

Forsaking the vacuum, Micah propped his hands on his bent knee and smiled up at her. “What a way to talk. The Lord made you in his perfect image. Are you questioning his purposes?”

“No.” Barbara averted her eyes from the look of kindness on the gardener's face, feeling somehow ashamed of her neediness. He was right; she shouldn't feel so down on herself, but how could she help it? Men didn't care what they looked like; but for women, looks were important. Looks were what caught a man's attention in the first place, and after you caught a man's attention you had to charm him, and flatter him, and make him feel special. And once you married him, you had to please him, and care for him, and eventually, give him a baby . . .

BOOK: A Perfect Love
5.22Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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