Mary had awakened on edge, knowing Jared would be coming over today to move into the carriage apartment. She rubbed the back of her neck and yawned. Her dreams had featured a mishmash of past and present. Images of herself and Jared as children had them morphing into adults and back small again in the blink of an eye. Her parents flitted around the periphery of the scenes, not really part but not quite absent. A psychiatrist would have a field day interpreting her dreams. Which was another reason she had no intention of seeing one anytime soon.
The phone rang as she stood by the picture window in the breakfast nook drinking her tea and gazing at the tangled flowerbeds and straggly grass that constituted her backyard lawn. She moved over to the kitchen phone and checked the caller ID. Culpepper Community Church.
“Good morning, it’s Pastor Smith.”
“What can I do for you?”
“Jared asked me for a ride to your place. His cousin needs the truck today. What time do you want us there?”
Mary looked at the wall clock, which read eleven-thirty. “Can you make it two-thirty? That’ll give me enough time to make sure the place is ready for him.”
“Two-thirty it is. And Mary?”
“Yes?” She held her breath, hoping he wasn’t going to ask for another favor. She wasn’t sure Jared moving into her apartment was a good idea as it was.
“Thanks for letting Jared stay there. He might not say it himself, but he really needs a quiet place to hang out for a while.”
She exhaled. “And I need a yard that doesn’t look like a jungle.”
The pastor’s booming laugh brought a half smile to her face. “True. See you in a few hours.”
Mary replaced the phone and picked up her tepid cup of tea. She took a sip, made a face and tossed the liquid down the drain. No time like the present to work out the cobwebs in her mind with a bit of housecleaning.
# # #
Jared rang the doorbell of Mary’s house at precisely two-thirty. He turned to wave to Pastor Smith, who had dropped him off before heading to the hospital. A parishioner had been in an automobile accident and the minister needed to go immediately to be with the family.
The creak of the door hinges signaled Mary’s arrival at the front door. He whipped around, nearly losing his balance on his crutches. She stood framed in the doorway for an instant before she stepped back, her dark hair swinging over her shoulder in its ponytail.
“Come in.” She peered around him. “I thought Pastor Smith was coming with you.”
Jared swung himself over the threshold, leaving his bags on her front porch. With the house set a fair piece back from the road and the bushes by the porch needing a good trimming, he doubted anyone would see his things from the sidewalk or street. They should be safe enough for now.
“He had to go to the hospital. Someone named Ferratt was in a car accident.”
Mary motioned him to proceed to the living room and closed the front door. “Milton Ferratt?”
“Yeah, that was the name.”
“Oh, dear. He’s in his eighties. Was he badly hurt?”
Jared sank into the chair he had occupied two days earlier. “I don’t think so, but his wife was very upset, and Pastor Smith thought he should go there right away.”
“Ada Ferratt never could handle a crisis of any sort.” Mary slapped a hand over her mouth, her eyes wide. “Sorry, I shouldn’t have said that. That’s something my Aunt Geraldine would have said. She and Ada weren’t friends, even though the two had practically grown up together.”
“I see.” Jared most certainly didn’t see, but that was all he could think of to say.
“You probably don’t, but how could you?” She looked at Jared. “The simplest explanation is that my Aunt Geraldine was rather grumpy.”
Jared nodded. “We can’t pick our relatives.”
Mary gave a wry grin. “No, we can’t. Are you ready to see the apartment?”
He pushed himself up from the chair and grabbed his crutches. “Lead the way.” As he turned to go, he glanced up and saw a huge portrait of a young family above the fireplace. Usually he didn’t notice paintings, but something about the picture stopped him.
The man, in a short coat, riding breeches and a crop, stood behind a seated young woman, her hair piled high on her head. Her simple dress of white with tiny flowers billowed about her feet. In her lap, dangled a small baby with golden ringlets dancing and a chubby leg poking out from under the hem of the ivory gown. A little boy dressed in a Buster Brown suit leaned against the woman, his eyes on the spaniel puppy playing at her feet. Almost involuntarily, Jared moved forward for a better look, wondering how he missed seeing the painting on his last visit. The painter had captured the mood of the family, conveying their happiness and playful spirit with his brush strokes.
“It’s a Thomas Eakins.” Mary stood by his side, her eyes on the picture.
“Who?” Jared turned to look at Mary.
“The painting. It’s a lesser-known work by Thomas Eakins. My aunt’s family was from Philadelphia and this depicts one of her great-great something or other. It’s been in the family for years.”
“I’ve never heard of Eakins,” Jared admitted. He tended to avoid galleries, art not being his thing. “I’m not much of a painting expert.”
Mary laughed. “Neither am I. I just know what the provenance says about the painting. My aunt has it all documented. When Eakins painted it, who paid the commission, all that stuff that supposedly makes it more valuable.”
Jared raised his eyebrows and leaned forward to get a better look at the painting. “What’s it worth, this painting with the long history?”
Mary threw him a sideways glance. “You really want to know?”
“A couple million.”
“Wow.” Jared gazed at the happy family, then back at Mary. “That painting’s worth two million dollars?”
“Crazy, isn’t it?” Mary gestured toward the portrait. “I often wonder if that’s why they’re so happy. They know they’re worth a mint.”
Jared chuckled. “Perhaps you’re right.” He followed her to the front door. “Doesn’t it make you nervous to have such a valuable painting in the house?”
Mary shrugged. “It’s been here so long, I kind of forget what it’s worth. But I’m not careless about it. I do have it insured and the house has a state-of-the-art alarm system.”
“That’s good to know.” He watched as Mary keyed in a code on a wall alarm unit and opened the front door.
“I change the code frequently and have someone out to do a security check once a year, too.” She waited until he had crossed the threshold before joining him on the porch and closing the door. “I’m rather cautious when it comes to security.”
He leaned down and grabbed his duffle bag, slipping the strap over one arm and his neck. “Better be safe than sorry.”
“That’s how I feel.” She looked at his luggage. “How did you manage to get all this to the porch?”
“For an extra ten bucks, the taxi driver graciously carried the bags for me.” He grinned at her. “I’ll tip you the same.”
She reached down and rotated his suitcase around on its wheels. She balanced his smaller bag on top of it, then slung his laptop case over her shoulder. “I think we can do this in one trip.”
“Great.” Rather than start down the front steps, she went around to the right side of the porch. He hobbled after her, the duffle bag banging into his crutches. He rounded the corner and saw that the porch extended down the right side of the house. Mary headed for what he thought was more stairs, but as she started to descend, he realized with relief it was a ramp leading to a gravel path.
He followed her along the short path with finely ground pellets, wishing he had thought to cut the grass by the path first so he could avoid walking on the unsteady gravel. She paused at the foot of a steep set of outside stairs on the side of a stone carriage house and put down his bags. Jared stopped beside her.
“Are you sure this is a good idea? These stairs are rather steep.”
He blinked under her scrutiny, but gathered his resolve. No way was he going back to his cousin’s house. He’d sleep on the ground floor of the carriage house before he’d do that. “My physical therapist cleared me to climb stairs. In fact, she recommended that as part of my exercise regime.”
Mary stared at him for a few seconds, and Jared wondered if she had seen through his truth-stretching. His PT instructor had told him he could climb stairs but not to overdo it. He eyed the long staircase, pretty sure that this would fall into the realm of “overdoing it.” Turning back to Mary, he watched several emotions play across her face—concern, anxiety, and curiosity. He took a deep breath and waited for the question everyone eventually asked.
She frowned. “What’s wrong with your leg anyway?”
At least she was direct about it. He’d better tell her a little now so she wouldn’t Google his name and find out the sordid details. He didn’t want to face those particular demons anytime soon.
“The Twitter version is that my leg met up with a bullet and the bullet didn’t play nicely.”
A smile played at the corners of her mouth before blossoming into a grownup version of the smile he recalled from his boyhood. Mary smiling, with the sun warming her black hair and her purplish eyes aglow, was a very pretty woman. He shook his head to clear those thoughts away. The last time he thought that way about a woman, it had not gone well at all.
“I suppose that’s an appropriate answer for inquisitive strangers. May I ask one more impertinent question?”
He nodded, hoping it would be one he could answer.
“Does it still hurt a lot?”
“Not as bad as it did right after it happened, but a whole lot worse than the time I fell off my bike riding down the gravel road to the creek.”
This time, she laughed. “As I recall, it took your mother half an hour to pick the gravel out of your knee.” She shuddered. “I don’t think either one of us rode our bikes on that particular path the rest of the summer. Come on, I’ll show you the apartment.”
Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. Phantom Love is copyrighted and cannot be used in any form without permission from Sarah Hamaker.