Mary hung up the phone. At least something was going right. The painting was an authentic Thomas Eakins. Mr. Sullivan had personally arranged for the auction house to schedule the painting in the August auction. After her panic attack earlier, doubts about her fitness as a wife, much less a missionary one, assailed her. Amy’s question about why she hadn’t told David about her panic attacks echoed in her mind. Her friend was right. She needed to tell her fiancé about those attacks pronto. Only a few hours remained before their nightly chat. She would tell him then. And about her so-called parents. Time to get everything on the table between them. No more excuses or delays.
The phone rang again, a welcome distraction from her thoughts of what David would say to her revelation. “Hello?”
“May I speak to Mary Divers?” a woman asked.
“Hello, Ms. Divers. This is Denise Braddock with Mosby Auction House. We need to arrange a time to pick up the Eakins painting for its cleaning and photographing for the August catalog.”
“Of course. When did you have in mind?”
“Would tomorrow morning suit you?”
“That would be fine. What time?”
“Mr. Vickers will be there at eleven.”
“One more thing, Ms. Divers.”
“Yes?” Mary hoped she didn’t want more papers relating to the painting. She wasn’t sure there were any more among Geraldine’s records.
“I understand that the painting is of your ancestors. Are there are any items that would be related to the family in the portrait that we could include in the catalog? I realize it’s a long shot, but Mr. Sullivan mentioned a family home, so I, of course, immediately thought of the attic. People often find treasures hiding in storage.”
“To be honest, I’ve never really looked in the attic.” Mary glanced down at her list of things to do. “But I could squeeze in a quick peek today.”
“Anything from that period would be marvelous to display along with the painting. It’s the little touches that boost prices.”
“I’ll let you know if I unearth anything.” Mary set down the receiver and made a note about the pickup time for the painting, then walked to the living room to gaze at the family in the portrait. Now that she knew it was her ancestors staring back at her, there was more of a connection with the picture.
The mother’s serene countenance stared back at her from across time. Maybe she shouldn’t sell it after all. What must it be like to have that assurance, that poise. Mary wished she had that serenity, although she had recovered some of her equilibrium since Jared came back into her life. He had been the anchor that had made her childhood fun and relaxing, and she realized that he still had that effect on her.
Maybe Amy was right, and she should postpone the wedding for a bit, hold off selling the painting for now. The panic attack in the bridal store had torn through her self-confidence that she could be the wife of a proper missionary. She shook her head. She would conquer this and move on with her life. No time to contemplate the past—too many things to accomplish in the short time she had left as a single woman. Returning her gaze to the painting, Mary thought the mother would understand she had to sell it to finance the first step of her new life. A life that Mary hoped would be every bit as fulfilling as her ancestor’s appeared to have been.
A few years after Mary had moved in with Geraldine, they had spent one fall organizing the attic. Geraldine had inventoried every trunk and scrap of paper in a leather-bound ledger, her copperplate handwriting recording all depositories.. Back at the roll-top desk in the corner of the dining room, Mary opened a drawer and pulled out the twenty small books Geraldine used to keep her household accounts. She read the title page on half a dozen before she found the one labeled “Attic Contents.” Then she headed up the stairs to the top floor, a full-sized room accessible via a closed staircase.
Mary pushed open the attic door. A blast of hot, stuffy air hit her face like a wall. Coughing at the dust raised by the door, she crossed to the windows on either side of the large room and forced them up. A quick survey revealed ceiling fans. Soon some of the stuffiness in the room dissipated.
She sank onto a Victorian fainting couch and opened the ledger. Sunlight spilled from the open windows and illuminated the dust motes floating in the air. Mary ran her finger down the master list to find where the clothing was kept. Ah, there it was. Trunks fifteen through twenty-two. Skimming the contents of trunk fifteen, she noted an old baptismal gown and “other clothing.” A good a place as any to start looking.
She rose, set the book on the couch, and moved to the left side of the attic. Trunks lined one wall, numbers painted on the front sides. She found number fifteen and opened the top. A baby’s baptismal gown lay wrapped in a cotton bed sheet in the tray on top, she set that aside to delve deeper into the trunk. Underneath, muslin fabric covered something white and filmy. She pushed it aside and lifted up a lace-and-satin concoction.
It took a moment for her brain to translate what she was seeing. Of all the things she expected to find among her family’s possessions, this had not made the list. She had seen a photo once of a 1940s strapless sheath gown with a form-fitting bodice. This could have been the original. She stood and shook out the dress, which spilled over the attic floor and pooled at her feet. A dainty lace overlay covered the white satin gown with a soft skirt and small train. Underneath the gown lay a lace shrug. This was the kind of dress she longed to wear at her wedding.
Mary couldn’t resist the lure of the dress. Placing it gently back in the trunk, she shed her own cotton skirt and t-shirt. Stepping into the dress, she shimmied it up over her hips and breasts. The padded bodice relieved her of the worry of wearing a bra, so she took hers off and tugged the dress into place, zipping it up the back. It fit like it had been tailored for her, snug in all the right places. She picked up the shrug and gathered the skirt’s material in her hands to descend the steps. The only full-length mirror was in the corner of the guest room on the ground floor, so she gingerly headed down two flights of stairs.
Downstairs, Mary stared in disbelief at the image the mirror reflected. Flushed cheeks, sparkling eyes above a daringly fitted dress. A true blushing bride. She released the clip that held her long hair up. Dark waves cascaded over her shoulders, draping the dress like an ink spot.
She twisted to admire the fall of the dress from her hips in the back and swirled slowly around to watch the hemline rise and fall with her movement. This dress was built for dancing. Too bad she wouldn’t be dancing at her wedding, not at a brunch reception for eight. But a girl could dream of her handsome groom leading her out on moonlit balcony, the stars shining down as an orchestra played the old standby “The Way You Look Tonight.”
Mary squeezed her eyes shut, swaying slightly as she imagined David holding her close, his hand clasping hers as the waltzed together. But in her fantasy, Jared’s face was the one she saw, not her fiancé.
She twirled again, the dress flaring out at the bottom like a flower unfolding at dawn. Her eye caught a glimpse of someone inside the doorway. She halted in mid-turn.
Jared watched her from in the doorway.
# # #
Jared stood with his mouth hanging open. He had knocked at the back door and come in when she hadn’t answered, as had been his habit. Whatever he wanted to ask her about the back garden flew from his mind at the sight of her in a white dress, her hair flowing around her shoulders. All he wanted to do was gather her in his arms and kiss her.
“You, um, look good.” That sounded mundane. He should have said… You look amazing, fantastic, beautiful, and other similar adjectives. David or whoever he was likely had a smoother way with words than his own clumsy attempts to compliment the most gorgeous woman he had ever seen.
He took a few steps into the room, mindful of the grass stains on his jeans and the sweat dampening the back of his long-sleeved t-shirt. Just like it had the first time he had wanted to kiss her. He had stopped to wash his hands and splash cold water on his face in the kitchen, but he still smelled and looked like he had been working in the yard. Which he had.
Then all at once, the color of the dress registered. “Is that your, uh, wedding dress?” A small bead of satisfaction worked its way into his mind at the thought that he was seeing her wedding dress before the groom. Perhaps there wouldn’t even be a wedding, if he and Will managed to find out what Wildcat was up to in time.
Mary smiled. “I don’t know. I found it in a trunk upstairs in the attic. Aunt Geraldine, I mean, Grandmother, kept everything. I wonder if this was to have been her wedding dress. It looks similar to ones I saw from the 1940s.”
Aunt Geraldine? Grandmother? 1940s wedding dress? Jared pinched the bridge of his nose to bring his thoughts into focus. “Grandmother?”
Mary’s hand went to her mouth. “Oh, I forgot. You haven’t heard. I found this letter…” she began, but Jared held up his hand to halt her flow of words.
“I really want to hear about this, but I think maybe I should change out of these dirty clothes first.” He waved a hand down the length of his body to indicate the grass, twigs, and other debris that clung to his shirt and jeans.
“Oh, right. I shouldn’t wander around in this dress, either.” She gently smoothed her hand down the antique garment, skimming over her waist, hips, and upper thighs.
Jared followed the movement, his throat going dry and his pulse kicking up several notches. The outdoor sun had nothing on the heat Mary generated with that simple gesture. It’s probably best he reined in his thoughts, especially since the dress wasn’t for their wedding.
He cleared his throat. “Meet you in the kitchen in half an hour?” He backpedaled to the door, hoping he made it out of there before his resolve melted completely, and he grabbed Mary and kissed her. She thought her engagement was real, after all.
“I’ll make some tea.” She smiled again. “See you soon.”
He nodded and exited the room quickly, thinking that a cup of tea would give his mouth something to do that didn’t involve meeting hers over the kitchen table. He needed to remove the image of how utterly delectable she looked in that dress. An icy cold shower would help refocus his mind and firm his resolve to remember her engagement. But as he strode down the gravel path to the carriage house apartment, all he could think about was tangling his hand in her hair and kissing her until she forgot all about her precious David.
Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. Phantom Love is copyrighted and cannot be used in any form without permission from Sarah Hamaker.