Authors: Anne Stuart
A lively gathering was held at Professor Eldridge Kirkland's Bucks County estate on Tuesday to celebrate the return of “Proffy's” two renowned children. Ashley Kirkland, one of the country's foremost abstract painters, and his younger sister Holly, cellist in the world famous Mellon Quartet, were feted by friends and family alike. Also in attendance were Noah Grant, noted lawyer, and the professor's third child, Anne Kirkland, to help celebrate the siblings' accomplishments.
has always been very dear to me. For one thing, I got to use Bucks County in Pennsylvania as a setting, and it's one of the prettiest places in the world. The book deals with a lot of family stuff that hits home for many of usâit's a Cinderella story for the modern woman who does too much and is appreciated too little. Her brother and sister and father all love her, but fail to realize how special she is, and it takes the hero to bring her into the light.
I hope you love it!
Anne Stuart loves Japanese rock and roll, wearable art, Spike, her two kids, Clairefontaine paper, her springer spaniel Rosie, her delicious husband of thirty-one years, fellow writers, her two cats, telling stories and living in Vermont. She's not too crazy about politics and diets and a winter that never ends, but then, life's always a trade-off.
It was a very old house, sitting at the end of the long, rutted driveway, surrounded by a shawl of ancient oaks that protected it from the extremes of the climate. The gray stones were weathered from a thousand storms; the wavy glass windows had looked out over more than two hundred years of seasons, harsh and gentle. Within its strong thick walls families had lived out their lives, children had been born, old people had died, marriages had been consummated and destroyed, and still the house lived on, eternal in its graceful mass.
But age was beginning to take its toll, to tear away at the sturdy fabric that had held the house together since before the birth of the country. The slate roof was patched and leaking, the foundation crumbling; the sills were rotting and the plumbing and electricity rebelling against their anachronistic location. The house was dying from the inside out, and there was nothing that could be done.
For more than two hundred years the huge old house had been filled with familiesâgrandmothers and grandfathers, babies and pregnant women and maiden aunts and bachelor uncles. But now it was empty and lonely, most of its rooms unused, with no laughter or life flowing through the grace
fully paneled interior. There were no children to stare with wonder at the bullet holes and ominous brown patches that were sworn to have come from the Revolution. There were no young lovers to run laughing through the weed-choked gardens that were now brown and midwinter dead. The beautiful old house was dying, and one lone woman couldn't stop its demise, no matter how hard she tried.
She could throw her heart and soul into it, she could single-handedly patch and pray, she could spend every waking and dreaming hour working for the house, for the money to keep it going, for the energy to struggle after the interminable repairs. And she could steadfastly ignore the fact that bit by bit it was slipping away from her like a distracted lover who'd found someone new. The only way she could save her house was to let it go, and that was the one thing Anne Kirkland could never agree to do. So she watched it die, day by day, as she fought against the encroaching darkness.
And the house waited.
Anne Kirkland absently rubbed the back of her neck as she replaced the plastic cover of her Selectric. She was fond of the creatureâindeed, countless times Edmund Jolles had begged her to accept the wonders and glories of word processing, but Anne had been uncharacteristically obstinate.
“If I were a secretary I don't suppose I'd have much say in that matter,” she'd replied just that afternoon with the easygoing charm that had so often aided her in getting her own way. “But I've got the exalted title of assistant editor, and the amount of typing I do is minimal. For heaven's sake, Edmund, I only work part-time. How can you justify the expense?”
“It's thanks to you that our tiny publishing house can afford such luxuries. I want to reward you suitably.” He ran an exasperated hand across his shiny pink skull. Years of running his hand through his thinning hair had created a habit even baldness couldn't stop, and Anne smiled at him fondly.
“You can always reward me with more money,” she suggested lightly.
“But I couldn't write that off on my taxes. Besides, you'd just pour every penny into that damned house and still end up needing more.”
“So I would,” she agreed, unabashed. “So no raise. But no word processor, either. I love my Selectric.” She gave the brick-red machine an affectionate pat. “And she serves me very well indeed. If you're feeling guilty, give me an extra couple of days this weekâHolly and Ashley are coming down with a group of friends.”
“I shouldn't do it. Why should you want to take days off just to cook for a horde of starving artists?”
“They're very successful artists, and I like to cook. Don't worry about me, Edmund. I can take care of myself quite well, you know.”
“Maybe,” he replied, unconvinced. “You can have as many days as you wantâyou know perfectly well I'm damned lucky to have you. But take the Chinese manuscript home with you and see if you can put in a few hours on it. The thing's Greek to me, and Harvey Etling needs some feedback by midweek.”
“God protect me from insecure authors,” she said. “I'll do my best.”
“And try to have some fun.”
“I expect to. Wilson will be there at least part of the time, to make sure I don't work too hard.”
Edmund made a rude noise. “Wilson Engalls is about as much fun as a Victorian novel. How a bright, beautiful woman like you could possibly get engaged to such a stuffed shirt is beyond my comprehension.”
“Love is blind,” she replied blithely, having heard all this before.
“It must be. You and a lawyer!” He snorted, drifting back toward his office, mumbling indiscernible imprecations.
It was pitch-black by the time she left the rambling Victorian house that held the offices of Jolles Publications, a small
publishing house that specialized in textbooks, arcane dissertations and insolvency. Of course, Bucks County wasn't the best possible place for publishing, but the Jolles family had lived there since the Revolution, and the very thought of moving the business to New York or even Philadelphia turned Edmund pale with horror. Publishing's loss was Anne Kirkland's gain. Working three days a week, a scant seven miles from the tumbling-down estate on the New Jersey side of the river that still housed her professor-father and her artistic siblings at odd occasions was a job made to order. Tossing the five-hundred page manuscript onto the frayed front seat of her aging Volvo, she slid behind the wheel and offered up a silent prayer to the god of automobiles. On this occasion he was disposed to be merciful, and after only one complaining sputter the engine chugged into life. Pulling out into the rush-hour traffic on an early February evening, she mentally reviewed the dinner for that night. There would most likely be at least seven. Her father, the original absentminded professor, had no classes that night, and Ashley could be counted on bringing at least two of his hangers-on. As his success as an abstract artist increased, his coterie did likewise, efficiently devouring all of the quite fabulous sums Ashley could now command for his massive, somewhat dour paintings. Sleeping arrangements might be tricky, depending on who accompanied him and which way he was swinging, but Anne decided not to worry about it. It had never proven to be an insurmountable problem before.
But Holly was a different matter. As cellist in the renowned Mellon String Quartet, she spent a great deal of time on tour, and her visits to the old house were far too infrequent. And this time she was bringing someone special. Not that all her
men weren't special, to Holly. But this one was even more magnificent, or so she had informed Anne the previous night on the telephone.
“I've heard that before, Holly.” Anne had been skeptical. “How long have you been seeing him?”
“Well, that's the problem.” Her younger sister's breathless, bubbly voice carried over the line from New York. “I've only just met him, and I'm not quite sure what he thinks of me. He's absolutely the sexiest man alive, but I sometimes wonder whether he's taking me seriously.”
Anne had stifled her instinctive retort that Holly had yet to take any man seriously. “What is he, besides the sexiest man alive?”
“Right now he's a lawyer.”
“Now don't be prejudiced, Annie. You're engaged to one. And I've known some incredibly charming lawyers in my time.”
“You've known some incredibly charming everything in your time, little sister.” Anne's voice was caustic. “What did you mean by âright now'?”
“You said, âRight now he's a lawyer.' What did he used to be? Knowing your recent taste I bet he was a punk rocker.”
Holly giggled, a lilting sound that had enchanted more than one man. “Certainly not. That was last fall. Noah's a lawyer, all right. I just don't know how long he'll be one. He seems more than a little disenchanted with the legal system.”
“That's a point in his favor. And he'll be good company for Wilson.”
“That's not exactly what I had in mind,” Holly drawled. “I was counting on him being good company for me.
Besides, I wouldn't really think Noah would be Wilson's type at all.”
“What type is he?”
“Absolutely charming, and absolutely beautiful.” She sighed soulfully. “With a divine touch of cynicism and a touch-me-not heart that is completely irresistible. He was widowed several years ago, and I gather he hasn't been seriously involved since. It's all so marvelously romantic, though he's not at all a tragic figure. You'll adore him.”
“He doesn't sound like my type either,” Anne responded. “So you want this Noah put in your bedroom?”
“Nooo!” Holly shrieked. “I told you, we only just met. I'm planning to use this weekend to seduce him. And I need your help, darling.”
“Holly, I draw the line at pimping for my siblings.”
“Must you be so crude, Anne? You've been reading too many thrillers. I'm not expecting you to push him into bed with me, I just wonderedâ¦”
“Yes?” Anne waited patiently.
“Could you possibly put him in your room?” It came out all in a rush.
“I don't know what Wilson would say to that,” Anne replied.
“Not with you there, idiot!” Holly shrieked. “Besides, I thought we agreed he's not your type.”
“The sexiest man alive isn't my type? Thanks a lot.”
“You said it first. And you know what I mean. You like them a bit more sedate. Like Wilson.” On the other end Anne winced, but Holly continued blithely on. “Besides, Noah's too young for you. He's only thirty-two.”
“And I'm thirty-four. Such an insurmountable age difference!” she scoffed. “It would serve you right if I did
share my room with him. You're not very flattering to my ego, dear one.”
“I've put my foot in my mouth again, haven't I?” Holly's voice sounded mournful.
“You have, darling. But you do it so charmingly. So you'd like me to vacate my room for the youthful Noah so that you can manage to have your wicked way with him. So be it. There's a perfectly comfortable bed in my studio. Never let it be said that I stood in the way of true love.”
“Oh, bless you, Anne! You don't think Proffy will mind, do you?”
“About me vacating the bedroom or your sharing it?”
“The latter, of course! He doesn't care what you do,” Holly said artlessly, and Anne, inured, ignored it.
“Of course not. As far as our father's concerned you can do no wrong. He makes it a practice to ignore what goes on upstairs, which, considering Ashley's habits, is a very fortunate thing.”
“Is Ashley coming? I haven't seen him in ages.”
“He's coming, with several of his cronies, I don't doubt. Will you be riding down with your precious Noah?”
“Don't I wish! No, he has to work, of all things. I'll be down early afternoon, and I expect he'll arrive around dinnertime. Are you sure you don't mind, Annie, darling? I hate to evict you.”
“Anything for romance, Holly. I'd like some nieces and nephews.”
There was an audible gasp. “Well, he may be the sexiest man alive, but I don't know if I like him that much! Babies are soâ¦so permanent. Besides, Noah definitely isn't the sort to settle down. I don't see him as the home-and-hearth type,
which is part of his charm. I think you'll have to make your own babies, darling. Talk Wilson into it, why don't you?”
“I'll do my best,” Anne said dryly. “By the way, do you suppose you could help out a bit on the expenses? Feeding seven people on a long weekend gets a little pricy. Father's only on half salary now, and my money doesn't go very far.”
“Of course, dear, though I must admit I'm a trifle short myself. I guess it's my artistic temperament. Thank God we have someone practical like you in the family.”
“Thank God,” Anne echoed wryly.
“And I've brought back the most marvelous silks from Italy. Do you suppose we might have time to work up a few things for me? I'm afraid I'm desperately in need of something new to wear onstage. The others say they're tired to death of my current wardrobe.”
“I'll do my best.”
“Of course you will, darling. You always do. Ta.”
As Anne crossed the bridge into Lambertville her fingers clenched the steering wheel for a moment, then relaxed. No life was without its little frustrations, and Holly's artless selfishness was more than compensated for by her charm and affection. Doubtless when Anne arrived home at the rambling stone farmhouse Holly would greet her with hugs and kisses, and with strange and wonderful and completely useless presents from the exotic places she'd traveled to. With the proper amount of coaxing Anne could even persuade her to lend a hand in the kitchen; that is, if her father didn't demand her presence by the fireside for a leisurely brandy while Anne cooked dinner.
Now where did that sudden, irritated thought come from, Anne wondered, once more loosening her grip on the steering wheel. She must be more tired than she thought.
Turning past the crumbling stone fence that marked the boundaries of their property, she drove down the long, rutted driveway that eventually led to the rambling old house that Anne loved with a passion. As the gray stone walls loomed up out of the darkness a feeling of peace and contentment washed over her. As long as the mass of stone and wood was safe and secure, so was she. The light spilled in welcoming pools from the deep-set windows, almost every one sending a warm yellow glow into the dark winter night. All very beautiful, Anne thought, until you considered the electric bills. She drove around back to the kitchen entrance, parking the old yellow Volvo under the portico, and with an unusual weariness climbed out, the weighty manuscript in one arm, a few last-minute provisions in the other. Holly had said her sought-after Noah liked fine brandy. There could be little more conducive to romance than a shared midnight brandy by a flickering fire. It would be up to Holly to procure either the living room or the library for the private tÃªte-Ã -tÃªteâwhen Ashley was around, his entourage tended to spill over into every available space. Besides, Holly and Noah were just an excuseâAnne had craved this particular cognac for ages and denied herself that luxury. It was nice to have an excuse. She could only hope the two lovers would be more interested in each other than in her precious cognac.
There was no one in the long, low kitchen when she let herself in the door, dropping the manuscript on the scrubbed oak table and setting the brandy down with the care such a work of art deserved. It was extremely fortunate that the majority of the dinner had been prepared at six that morning and was waiting in the fridge for its final cooking. It was more than obvious that help was not on its way.
“Anyone home?” she called out, wandering up the short flight of stairs to the main floor of the house, stripping off her hat and gloves as she went, shaking free her curtain of midnight-black hair around her slender shoulders. No one answered. The living room was deserted, the empty glasses with half-melted ice cubes attesting to its recent occupants. With a sigh Anne eyed them. Three of them, one bearing Holly's particularly vivid shade of lipstick. Obviously her father had made it home early. But whose was the other glass? Noah What's-his-name wasn't due till later, Holly had said, and Ashley would be bringing at least two if he ran true to form. And for that matter, where were they all? The house, for all its blazing electricity, was completely empty.