Jared stood beside Pastor Smith on Mary’s front porch. He rested his weight on crutches to relieve the pain in his leg. He hadn’t wanted to return to the crutches, but yesterday’s weed-whacking had stressed his leg too much. After leaving Mary’s, his leg muscles continued to contract. He canceled a trip to physical therapy to visit a doctor, who had prescribed a muscle relaxant to take along with his pain killers. The doctor also told him to stay off the leg for a week and to check in before returning to physical therapy.
He wasn’t sure why Pastor Smith wanted him to be Mary’s handyman and yard worker, but it certainly gave a good cover for his real purpose. The pastor seemed determined that Jared be the one to help Mary with her yard.
He thought back to the last time he had seen Mary, down by the creek. When he had stopped by her house later that afternoon, Mary and her parents were gone. They never came back.
Pastor Smith rang the doorbell again and turned to smile at Jared.
“How long has Mary lived here?” Jared had been too tired to grill the man yesterday and the ride over had been spent talking about the afternoon’s Nationals baseball game.
Pastor Smith frowned. “I don’t know. This was her Aunt Geraldine’s house, I think. I’ve only been in Culpepper for seven years. Mary’s been here at least that long.”
Before Jared could ask another question, the door opened and Mary stood there dressed in a long, white skirt and a grass-green short-sleeved shirt.
“Pastor Smith, Jared. Come in.” She stepped back to allow the two men to enter. Pastor Smith took the lead, walking into the house and stopping just beyond the door to wait for their hostess.
Jared gripped the crutches and maneuvered his way across the threshold, wishing he’d taken another pain killer before coming here. His leg throbbed and a drop of sweat splashed down his forehead as he brushed past Mary. He stumbled a bit as a crutch hit the entryway rug and slid an inch.
He managed to recover his balance and concentrated fully on making it to the living room and into a chair without wiping out on the floor. He had gotten out of practice using crutches and felt like a novice again.
Mary edged around the men and led the way into the living room, gesturing to a grouping of a loveseat and two wingback chairs pulled up in front a cold fireplace. No need for a fire with summer practically upon them.
Jared eyed the couch with its plump cushions and opted for one of the chairs. He eased himself down, feeling double his age, and laid his crutches on the floor next to him.
“Tea? It’s fresh and hot. A jasmine-Ceylon blend.” Mary stood by the tea tray balanced on a low coffee table.
“I’d love some.” Pastor Smith turned to Jared. “Mary has some of the most delicious blends of tea. I don’t know where she finds them, but I’ll get the source out of her one of these days.”
Jared watched Mary pour the minister a cup. “In that case, I must try some.”
Mary handed the other man his cup before turning to Jared. “How do you take your tea? Cream? Sugar?”
Jared rubbed his chin. “Do you know, I don’t think I’ve ever thought about it before. What do you recommend?”
Mary tilted her head to one side, her eyes on his face. “You look like a man who likes his coffee black, but I usually drink this blend with a dash of sugar and a dollop of cream.”
“That sounds very British. I’ll have the same, please.”
“My aunt liked to call herself a transplanted English rose in the wilds of Virginia, even though she only spent one summer there as a young woman.” Mary poured his cup and added a sugar cube before stirring it briefly with a tiny silver spoon. “I guess I picked up some of her speech patterns.”
Jared sat back, stretching out his leg to ease the pain still shooting up his thigh. She picked up the saucer and cup, and walked toward his chair, carefully stepping around his leg.
“Here you are.” She handed him the saucer without spilling a drop of the hot liquid.
Jared balanced the saucer on his right leg and raised the cup to his mouth. The scalding tea touched his lips and he hastily replaced the cup to its saucer. He wasn’t one of those people who could drink really hot liquids. He would try again after it cooled. He looked to where Mary sat fixing her own cup of tea. Today, she wore her hair caught with a clip at the nape of her neck, black tendrils curling around her shoulders. He found himself longing for a glimpse of her eyes. Another memory skittered across his mind, of the pair of them watching National Velvet and his comment that her eyes were exactly like Elizabeth Taylor’s famous peepers. For weeks afterwards, he had called her Lizzy.
Pastor Smith sat his cup onto its saucer with a clink. “I guess we’d better get started. Mary, you need someone to take care of the yard and do some minor repairs to the house. Jared here needs a place to stay while his leg fully heals.”
Mary shook her head. “I appreciate your trying to help me, Pastor.”
Pastor Smith held up a hand. “Just a minute. What I’m proposing is this: Jared stays in the old carriage house apartment that’s down the driveway a piece, which would not harm either of your reputations. In exchange for free room, he will make your yard presentable and tackle whatever repairs you need done.”
The minister turned to Jared. “About how long do you think you might need?”
Caught off guard with the tea cup halfway to his lips, Jared jostled the cup and spilled some liquid onto his hand. He yelped and just managed not to drop the entire cup on the carpet. He reunited cup and saucer, and shook his smarting hand away from his body.
“Here.” Mary thrust a cloth napkin into his hand and relieved him of his tea.
He looked up at her, his gaze tangling with hers. “Thanks, Lizzy.” The nickname slipped out, but her gasp brought him back to his senses. “I’m sorry. Your eyes, I’d nearly forgotten how violet they looked sometimes. Like Elizabeth Taylor’s.”
Mary worried her bottom lip with her top teeth. “It’s okay. I haven’t heard the name Lizzy in a really long time, that’s all.” She frowned down at his hand, which was turning red. “Is your hand okay?”
Jared followed her gaze and examined the burn. “It stings a bit, but the tea had cooled enough that I think it will be fine.”
She nodded and half smiled at him. “I’ll be right back.”
Jared watched her exit the room with his tea cup and soiled napkin. The sway of her nicely rounded hips reminded him that she wasn’t a kid anymore. Mary Divers had grown up quite nicely.
“You said something about knowing each other as kids?” Pastor Smith raised his eyebrows.
Jared avoided the man’s all-too-knowing eyes. “I moved next door to her family up in southern Maryland. We were inseparable for nearly two years, back when we were both eight.”
Jared sighed and leaned forward to see if Mary was returning, but the sound of running water in the kitchen signaled her preoccupation in that room. “I wish I knew. I came home from visiting my grandmother one Saturday and her whole family was gone. Some people from the Salvation Army were carting off their household goods and a moving van took their furniture. None of the neighbors knew where they had gone or what had happened to Mary. It was like they went into the witness protection program or something. They simply vanished.”
“And yesterday was the first time you’d seen her in years?” The pastor leaned forward.
Jared nodded. At least he could honestly answer that question. He hoped he wouldn’t have to skirt the truth too much in this case. He wasn’t very good at outright lying, much better to evade the question. “That about sums it up.”
Mary walked back into the room and retook her seat on the couch. “Did you want more tea?”
Jared shook his head. “No, thanks, I’m okay.” He shifted in his seat. “I would really appreciate your letting me stay here. My physical therapist said that the type of yard work I would do here would be good for my leg. I wouldn’t be any trouble, I promise. I plan on living quietly while I regain my strength and mobility. No wild parties, I can assure you.”
“There would be some house repairs, too. A few places on the roof need fixing and the gutters on the south side are sagging.” She looked down at his left leg. “But those can wait for a bit until your leg heals more.”
Pastor Smith smiled. “So, you both agree?”
“What about your job?” Mary raised her cup to take a sip.
Jared broke eye contact with her and stared into the empty fireplace. “I’m taking an extended leave of absence. I have some money saved, if that’s what you’re asking.” His words came out sharper than he had intended.
“That wasn’t what I was asking, but I’m glad to know you’re not destitute.” She turned to Pastor Smith. “You can vouch for his character? While we knew each other as children, it’s been a long time in between.”
Ouch. He had nearly forgotten Mary’s penchant for directness that could disconcert the listener. Although he wasn’t sure he liked it directed at him, he was glad time hadn’t erased all the characteristics he remembered.
Pastor Smith folded his hands. “You certainly are cautious, Mary.”
“Living alone in a house set back from the road and neighbors, I cannot afford not to be cautious.”
“I only met Jared myself a few weeks ago,” Pastor Smith said, “but one of my very good friends, also a pastor, says he’s honest, truthful, and attended church regularly. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind supplying some references.”
Jared kept his face neutral but inside he squirmed at the honest remark. He didn’t like to hide why he needed to get close to Mary, but he didn’t see another way to get to the bottom of the case.
Mary crossed her legs. “I think that won’t be necessary. There is one thing you ought to know. I don’t go out much.”
She blushed and Jared wondered why until her word choice and its possible implications dawned on him. The psychiatrist in him thought she would make a very interesting client.
“What I mean is, I stay home a lot. I go to church and that’s about it.” She avoided his eyes, keeping her gaze on the tea tray.
Jared looked at Pastor Smith, who merely stared back. “That’s okay by me.”
Mary stood. “Then it’s settled. My aunt used to rent the apartment over the carriage house furnished, but don’t expect any up-to-date appliances. I think everything works, but just let me know if it doesn’t.”
Pastor Smith stood and Jared reached down for his crutches to join him. His leg muscles tightened as he heaved himself out of the chair and steadied himself for a moment.
“Tomorrow it is.” Jared smiled at her. “Thank you, Mary. I truly appreciate it.”
“It won’t be easy. The yard is a mess.” She eyed his crutches.
“These will be gone soon. Overdid it yesterday with the weed whacking. I learned my lesson and will pace myself better.”
He followed Mary as she walked to the front door, Pastor Smith trailing behind him.
She opened the door for him, and Jared thanked her again as he slowly hobbled over the threshold and onto the porch.
“Thanks, Mary. See you Sunday.” Pastor Smith followed him out onto the porch and waved at Mary as she closed the door.
Jared looked behind him at the massive wood door. “She doesn’t like to let the flies in, does she?”
Pastor Smith smiled. “No, she’s a bit of a recluse, truth be told.” He studied Jared. “Which is why I’d hoped she’d agree to this proposition. I think it will do her a world of good to see someone around the place on a daily basis as well as give you a quite spot to lick your wounds.”
“I don’t know what you were told about me, but I don’t have any wounds to lick.” Jared started toward the porch stairs.
“You keep telling yourself that, and you might just believe it yourself.”
Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. Phantom Love is copyrighted and cannot be used in any form without permission from Sarah Hamaker.