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Authors: Lori Copeland

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BOOK: A Perfect Love
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Barbara felt a thrill rise within her. Russell was a rock, so strong and sure in the face of her mother's frenzy. Why couldn't she be more like him?

Floyd dropped his spoon into his bowl. “How'd you get home, Cleta?”

She gave him a look of pure exasperation. “Crazy Odell. That rascal had the nerve to charge me double for the ride, 'cause it was after dark. I stink like fish! He made me ride on the livewell.”

Barbara thought a bit of sympathy might be in order. “That's awful, Mama,” she said, dabbing at her damp cheeks.

Cleta looked at her, then her narrowed eyes widened. “What's wrong, baby? Why are you crying— never mind, I can see the reason myself. I'd cry, too, if someone did that to me. Great balls of fire, who cut it? A goat shearer?”

Barbara's hand flew to her hair. “No! Nadine Lott cut it—she's been to beauty school in Boston, Mama. She's really good.”

“She's butchered you!”

“Oh, Mom.” Barbara sank in her chair and felt her shoulders slump. The balloon of happiness that had sustained her through the afternoon was deflating now, her joy escaping in a slow leak . . .

“Too late to cry about it now. We can get you a wig.”

From beneath the table, Russell tugged on Barbara's jeans. She shot him a resolute look, then took a deep breath and turned to face her mother. “I'm not crying about my hair, Mom. I happen to love it. I'm not crying at all. My eyes are watering because of the contacts.”

“Contacts?” Clutching at her chest like Fred Sanford having “the big one,” Cleta staggered backwards. Quick as a rabbit, Floyd slid a chair beneath her backside just as her knees collapsed. “What has gotten into you, Barbara Jean Lansdown?”

“Higgs,” Russell quietly corrected. “Her name is Barbara Jean Higgs.”

Cleta threw him a stay-out-of-this glare.

Stiffening her spine, Barbara turned to face her mother. “I got contacts this afternoon, Mom. I detest glasses; I wanted contacts. I love them. And the doctor said my eyes would stop watering as soon as I got used to them.” She sniffed, defiantly taking another swipe at the moisture dribbling down her cheeks.

For once Cleta was speechless. “Well,” she finally said, looking from Barbara to Russell and then to Floyd. “I don't know if it's a full moon or solar flares causin' the trouble, but something is definitely wrong with the world when the child who wouldn't get a drink of water without asking will put glass in her eyes and run her hair through a weed whacker without so much as asking my opinion.”

Aware of her husband's encouraging eyes upon her, Barbara returned to her stew and ate a huge mouthful, pretending that her mother's words hadn't hurt. Beneath the table, though, her knees trembled and her stomach had shriveled to the point where she doubted she could eat more than three bites.

At 10 PM, Dana Klackenbush teakittled up her kitchen, then climbed
the stairs to join her husband in bed. Bringing her knees up under the comforter, she adjusted the angle of her magazine so the bedside lamp didn't reflect on the glossy pages. Beside her, Mike snored softly while a basketball game thumped softly from the small television on the bureau. She ignored the TV—Mike fell asleep to the muted sounds of crowd noise, and if she changed the channel or turned the set off, he'd wake in a heartbeat. Only after he'd been dozing a half-hour or more would he be in a deep enough sleep for her to snap off the set.

Sighing, she flipped through the glossy pages of
Northeastern Living
. The expensive monthly periodical featured pictures of the most stately homes in the Boston area. Though she couldn't afford the decorator treatments she saw in those estates, she took quiet pride in knowing that her house was at least as historic as many of those in the magazine. By all accounts, the Klackenbush home had been built in 1798 when Jacques de Cuvier founded the town, so though it was patched and clothed in homemade curtains, her home was every bit as significant as some of those places on Boston's Snob Hill . . .

She paused as a picture of a particularly elegant brick house caught her eye, then she dropped her jaw when she saw a photograph of the owner—a handsome man with dark eyes, a tidy silver beard, and a mane of coiffed hair. “Dr. Basil Caldwell,” the caption read, “poet laureate at Boston College, lives in Hobbleton Hall, a lovingly restored home built in 1799.”

She thumped her elbow against her husband's back. “Mike, look at this!” Rising up on her knees, she bent over him with the magazine. “Basil Caldwell! He went to Wells High School with me!”

Mike grunted.

“Hey!” Leaning over, Dana shook her husband to wakefulness, then held the magazine before his bleary eyes. “Look at this guy. I know somebody famous. Isn't that something?”

“Dana!” Mike closed his eyes. “I'm sleeping.”

“No, you're not.” Pulling the magazine away, Dana settled back onto her side of the bed and held the page closer to the lamplight. “I remember him. He was older than me—class of '90, I think, 'cause I was '92 and Buddy was '93. I was a sophomore when he was a senior—”

She halted when she realized Mike was snoring again. Blowing a hank of hair off her forehead, she pulled the blankets up to her waist and leaned toward the lamp as her fingertip traced the line of Basil Caldwell's strong jaw. Buddy probably wouldn't remember him, but he wouldn't have noticed Basil the way she did. When she was an underclassman, the senior boys were like tall, broad-shouldered, and supremely confident princes. Basil had been the crown prince of Wells High—smart, handsome, and athletic, an unheard-of combination. President of the student body and quarterback; member of the National Honor Society and homecoming king. Not many boys had all the finer qualities wrapped up in one package, but Basil Caldwell certainly did.

She read the article about his house, then smiled slowly when she noticed the writer did not mention a Mrs. Caldwell. So . . . either the hunk of Wells High hadn't found what he was looking for, or he hadn't been able to make a go of his marriage. Yet one thing was certain—if he lived in a home lovely enough to grace the pages of
Northeastern Living
, he was prospering. And if he'd earned the title of poet laureate for Boston College (whatever that meant), he'd obviously managed to maintain his unique blend of success and sensitivity.

Sighing, she settled into the mound of pillows at her back. She loved her husband, but a girl never forgot her first crush, and Basil Caldwell had been hers. He had waltzed into her biology class one afternoon, all neck and shoulders and charm, and made an announcement about the senior class carnation sale. And then, while all the sophomore girls were about to melt onto the floor, he had leaned forward and tweaked Dana's nose. “So if any of you want to send me a carnation, make sure it's red,” he'd said, flashing a blinding assortment of perfect teeth. “Because red is the color of true love.”

Dana glanced at Mike, who had never sent her a red carnation in his life. Daisies, occasionally, in the summer, and roses on their anniversary because he thought that's what men were supposed to do. But on that day back in 1990, Dana would have given her entire Whitney Houston album collection if Basil Caldwell had sent her even a fringed petal from a red carnation . . .

Blowing out her cheeks, she turned the page. In a shaded sidebar, a bold headline announced the Basil Caldwell Poetry Contest for unpublished poets. Interested contestants were to send any unpublished poems to Mr. Caldwell in care of the magazine, and the winner would be treated to lunch with Mr. Caldwell, receive a free critique of any works in progress, and a valuable prize.

Dana spent a full moment searching her brain for any wisp of a poem that might be lingering in the crevices, then shook her head, resigned to the fact that she had not inherited even a trace of her father's gift for rhyme. She flipped the page.

Better to remember Basil as she had once adored him than to torture herself with things that could never be.

Chapter Five

n Monday morning, Buddy got up, dressed in his most comfortable overalls and jacket, then moseyed down to the mercantile with Butchie in search of something to do. Outside the air was still cold but not frigid, the temperature probably in the low forties.

He gave the bulldog a slow smile. “The old-timers would call this mortifyin' weather,” he said. “Like when a sudden thaw catches everybody with their long-handled underwear still on.”

The dog barked in agreement, then trotted off toward Frenchman's Fairest, probably in search of Tallulah. Buddy shrugged and crossed Ferry Road, then entered the wide double doors of the mercantile.

Shuffling down the first aisle, he ignored Vernie's sharp glance and browsed the candy counter.

“Elezar!” Vernie shouted. “Did we get my order placed?”

“Ayuh, Vernie.” The patient clerk shot Buddy a wink when their gazes met. “You faxed it in Saturday afternoon.”

“All right, then. You seen MaGoo?”

“He's here, under my feet. If you want him, just crinkle the cellophane on that new cat food he likes.”

A moment later Buddy heard crinkling, then a black-and-white blur raced past his feet.

“Bet you haven't seen many cats like my MaGoo,” Vernie called, a note of pride in her robust voice.

Buddy shrugged. “Whatever.” Truth was, he couldn't care less about a fat old cat. MaGoo did nothing but lie around, eat, and take up space . . . which is probably what most of the townspeople thought he did all day. But at least MaGoo had Vernie and Elezar, who doted on him, and Vernie and Elezar had each other. Vernie even had her straying husband, Stanley, who'd been living in a guest room while trying to smooth things over with his missis.

Buddy caught himself watching Vernie feed her cat, then lowered his gaze and reminded himself that he didn't care about any of these people. He didn't care about Vernie, or about Birdie and Bea, the sisters who lived next door to the mercantile, or about flighty Babette Graham and her family. The pastor was a vain and foolish old fuddy-duddy, and his wife a simpering Pollyanna. The only person on the island who'd earned an ounce of Buddy's respect was Salt Gribbon, who until recently had appeared to be a pillar of strength, living alone in the lighthouse without needing anyone or anything other than the barest necessities . . .

But at Christmas, the entire town saw Salt's softer side, and they learned the old curmudgeon had been hiding his two grandkids in the lighthouse to protect them from his alcoholic and possibly abusive son. Now Salt was allowing the entire town to pitch in and help with those kids, so the old sea captain wasn't nearly as self-reliant as he pretended to be.

Maybe Salt was cracking up . . . or maybe being alone wasn't such a good thing.

Buddy sniffed, then wiped his dripping nose on his coat sleeve. The other day
Weird Yakov had been muttering something about how it wasn't good for men to be alone, but Yakov had his craziness and the other loony Smith guys to keep him company. And whether he grew up in Holland, Timbuktu, or on the moon, it was a sure bet Yakov hadn't been a skinny kid going to a school populated by thick-necked, big-handed farm boys who could lift girls as easily as they flipped two-hundred-pound opposing fullbacks over their shoulders. They grew tough kids in the State of Maine, the locals said, resilient kids, kids who could take care of themselves.

So Buddy, who had barely weighed one hundred pounds in his boots, parka, clothes, and long-handled underwear, had somehow been born in the wrong state. Growing up in Maine had been easy for Dana, because people expected girls to be thin and sensitive and melancholy, but Buddy had felt like a gormy misfit ever since middle school. He'd thought he'd finally feel like part of a team when he joined the Navy, but even there he'd been the odd man out. Developing an incurable case of seasickness hadn't helped matters, either.

Now he had never felt so alone . . . and like such a malcontent.

Oh, the townspeople tried to help him fit in. They greeted him with a smile every time they met, and made him feel welcome at every church function Dana prodded him to attend. But sometimes their smiles seemed a little frayed, and more than once he caught the older biddies whispering as he walked by. He knew he was welcome solely on Dana's behalf, only because Heavenly Daze had embraced her and Mike. Sometimes he caught certain conversational currents that implied the townsfolk fully expected him to leave . . . and he would, if he only could think of some place to go.

Obeying the urge to move on, he shuffled past the candy counter and paused at the magazine rack. Vernie hadn't put out any new Superman comic books since his last visit—or, if she had, she was hiding them behind the counter. He'd heard rumors about Babette complaining that Buddy read them without paying, then left them all fluffed and wrinkled for Georgie to buy.

He froze as a new magazine caught his eye:
Exotic Wild Life
. For a moment he stared at the title, then shifted his gaze to the stern woman behind the counter. Had Vernie lost her mind? What would the preacher say if he knew the mistress of the mercantile had placed a naughty men's magazine on the newsstand for even the island youngsters to ogle?

Turning so that his back blocked Vernie's view of the magazine rack, Buddy gingerly lifted the glossy periodical from its slot. The cover featured a lovely lass with flowing blond hair, a fetching smile on her painted lips, and some sort of fur draped over her palm. Then his eyes fell to the headline in the lower corner: Aussie's Foxy Loxies All the Rage in America's Heartland.

Not quite sure what a foxy loxy was (he'd certainly never heard the term in the Navy, and in the Navy a man heard about everything), Buddy leaned against the wall and flipped to the article. On the facing page, the blonde appeared again, but in this picture Buddy could see that the fur on her palm was an animal of sorts, a squirrel-like creature with a pointed face painted a bit like a raccoon's.

BOOK: A Perfect Love
12.62Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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