Home > The Hideaway(7)

The Hideaway(7)
Author: Lauren K. Denton

She shrugged. “Henry got sick, and we had to stop taking on so many guests. He’d long stopped working—the house was our only source of income, and it more than paid for what we needed. But with fewer guests, money got tight. We had to let the kitchen staff go, then our cleaning staff. I’m sure your trained eye could see the state the house is in. Our old Bertha would have an apoplectic fit if she saw how I’ve let things go.” She refilled her teacup and mine.

“After Henry died, I needed the money, so I had to be less selective about who I allowed to stay here. Hence, the artists,” she said with a flick of her wrist. “I just don’t know how long I can keep this up. I can always move back to Mobile, but I’ve been gone so long, I don’t know anyone there anymore. If I did go back, I’d be the outsider, and I assure you, I have no desire for that. Imagine me, an outsider. It’s preposterous.”

She fanned herself with her hand, then rose from the table. “I need to get on with my day. You enjoy yourself, now. I can’t offer you a boat ride, but there are games in the main parlor—the artists break those out later in the day. Heavens above, I don’t know how they get by in life. No jobs, no money . . .” She continued her rant as she walked back up the steps and into the house.

Alone, I breathed in the cool air. It was January, but it felt more like early spring. I leaned my head back in my chair, untroubled for the first time since learning of Robert’s indiscretions. Sitting in that chair with the sun on my face, miles away from the center of the storm, I finally felt free.

I awoke sometime later to a man sitting at the table opposite me. I sat bolt upright, patted my hair—an automatic gesture—and smoothed my hands down my dress.

“It’s okay. You look fine.”

When I chanced a look at him, I realized he was the man from the night before, the one who stood out from the crowd. I hadn’t noticed how defined his jaw was, how thick his fringe of eyelashes. He was so close, it was hard to breathe. He seemed to take up all the air in the entire world.

“Pardon me for saying so, but you look a little out of place here,” he said.

I looked down at my dress and put my hand up to my hair again. His scrutiny reduced me to half my size.

“I don’t think it’s me who’s out of place,” I said, surprising myself. He wore a flannel shirt, dungarees, and scuffed boots. “Where’s your black turtleneck and beret?”

He let out a soft laugh. “Touché. Your name’s Helen, right?”

I reached up to scratch the back of my neck. The collar of my dress felt warm and too tight. “That’s right. Helen Parker.”

He stood and held out his hand. “Want to take a walk with me?”

Under the table, my wedding ring sat heavy on my finger. I had yet to take it off. I rubbed the ring with my other fingers, considering his offer. In the end, I took his hand.

And that one little decision changed everything.

6

SARA

APRIL

I spent Friday morning going over last-minute details with Allyn. As I’d suspected, he was ecstatic about having the place to himself.

“No more French café music, for one thing.” He walked around the shop, ticking items off on his fingers. “I may move some of these sconces to the back to make room for a few paintings a friend of mine dropped by. Oh, and I saw some great old masks sitting by the curb in front of the Funky Cat last night. I may stop by and see if I can pick them up before the garbage truck comes. They might make a nice vignette somewhere.”

“I’m not deeding the shop over to you. I’ll be back by next Friday at the latest. I figure that gives me time to go through Mags’s things and tie up any loose ends with the lawyer. Don’t think I won’t notice if this place looks like a Mardi Gras float when I get back.”

I thought he’d tease me as he always did about running too tight a ship, but instead he hugged me. He’d been doing that a lot. He sniffed and I pulled back to look at him.

“It’s okay, Allyn. Why are you upset?”

“I always wanted to meet her. The way you described her, I thought we might have been kindred spirits or something. Her having African American roommates in the 1960s? In the Deep South? If she loved people on the fringes, she would have loved me. Anyway, she was the last family you had left. Doesn’t that make you the slightest bit sad?”

“I’m fine. Really.” To avoid meeting his eyes, I turned away and straightened my dress. Allyn eyed me, assessing me. I raised my eyebrows in answer.

“Whatever you say.” He looked at his watch. It was a couple hours before I had to leave town. “Get out of here. Finish packing, put on something comfortable, and pick up a large coffee on your way out. When you get to Sweet Bay”—he affected the drawl he liked to associate with Alabama—“call me if you need me. You keep your emotions stuffed in a drawer somewhere, but your grandmother died and you’re going home.”

Home. I hadn’t thought of Sweet Bay as home in over a decade. The word unsettled me a little.

“I can get Rick to come and take over if my services are needed,” he continued. Allyn’s friend Rick annoyed me—constantly misting his face with lavender water (to keep his complexion young) and boasting about his ability to fit into women’s skinny jeans—but he had a killer eye for what customers liked.

I took Allyn’s advice and was now zipping across Lake Pontchartrain headed toward Alabama. I rolled down the windows and let the breeze play with my hair and soothe my frantic mind until the car got too warm and my hair began to frizz.

On the way, I mulled over what Allyn had said about burying my emotions. My first reaction was to blow it off and blame it on his constant attempts to psychoanalyze me. But he wasn’t the first person to tell me I had a tough exterior. When I’d called Mitch to cancel our date on Saturday night, he called me unreadable.

“You break our date to one of the biggest events I have to go to all year, and you don’t even seem sorry about it.”

“I told you, my grandmother died. I’ll be wearing my black dress for a much more somber occasion than a fund-raising gala at Galatoire’s.”

“I don’t mean to slight your grandmother’s death, but you’ve hardly mentioned her to me. We’ve been going out for—I don’t know, a little while—and I still can’t read you. I don’t know what makes you tick or what’s important to you.”

Maybe Mitch and Bernard were right. Maybe I was too private. But it didn’t bother me. Allyn was one of the few people—okay, the only person—who knew what I was really like on the inside. And that wasn’t even by my choice. Early in our friendship, he more or less kidnapped me one night after work and whisked me away to a party in a courtyard much like the one behind my loft. We hung out with his friends for hours, talking and laughing. I was more comfortable in the company of his strange, colorful friends than I had been with any other group of people I could remember.

Around midnight, someone popped in an old VHS tape of Xanadu, and most everyone flocked to the TV inside. Allyn and I stayed outside and talked. Actually, I did most of the talking, answering every one of his myriad questions about my life and childhood as honestly as I ever had.

The next morning, nursing a grating headache, I opened Bits and Pieces an hour late, much to a snickering Allyn’s delight. He admitted there had been a boatload of vodka—cleverly disguised as pineapple juice—in the punch he’d been handing me all night.

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