The wide-brim straw hat hid more than just the scorching sun from her pale brown face. She thought it was best to put it on during the long bus ride from the affluent Crystal Falls to where she concluded was the middle of nowhere.
Nestled between acres of barren land to its north and a deep wooded valley to its south, the small town boasted a one-room post office and some abandoned buildings on a strip on the north side of the town. There were a few churches, too, planted among small ranch-style homes in old neighborhoods across a railroad track. The town hadn’t changed much in decades. The busy Main Street that ran parallel to the railroad track was its heartbeat, but it was the churches that held families together there, and the main reason some who left came back.
It took more than a day to get there. During the long bus ride, she sat circling a diamond ring around and around her finger and fondling the delicate strands of gold necklaces, lending a subtle hint of glamour to her beige sleeveless dress. Now and then, she’d catch herself tangling and untangling the gold bracelets around her tiny wrists and wiping imaginary smudges from the tips of her red painted fingernails. A grey-bearded man sitting next to her watched from the corners of his eyes the whole ride. But that was all she could do to occupy her time. It got tiring after a while- pretending to not notice the eccentric man watching her during the long boring ride. So, she put on her hat and closed her eyes.
Hours passed before the bus turned off the well-paved two-lane highway, where the towering limbs of old oak trees shaded her window from the mid-day sun. It crossed over a river and began a strenuous crawl up a long steep mountainside. She pulled back the brim of her hat to see a thick forest of tall green pine trees gliding by her window like a mudslide. Reaching the top, the bus traveled a narrow road paralleling a gorge for miles and then breezed a lonely two-lane highway parting through a wide-open land of nothingness, before coming to a stop in front of an old post office near a railroad track.
A muffled announcement brought her to her feet.
A downpour of rain had preceded her. She peered through the window at a narrow one-story red brick building with businesses attached side by side. Some had chained steel gates. Some had boarded windows and doors. A few were open and had catchy names scribbled on canopies over their entrance.
This can’t be it.
The words swirled around in her head like an album on an old record player. And somewhere lodged in the monotonous cycle was the image of her huge Victorian-style mansion in the bend of a cul-de-sac on the sprawling estate she left behind. She picked up her purse, held down her hat, and shuffled passed the grey-bearded man to get off the bus. No one else got off, but it took a while to unload her ten-piece luggage set before the bus continued out of town.
The sound of her name brought her attention to a tall well-built middle-aged man, by quick estimation, a little older than her age of forty-five. He hopped out of a pick-up truck parked across the street and half-jogged half-walked his way to her.
Years in the sun were evident upon him as he neared. His dark oval-shaped face was unshaved, and a well-toned physique peeked from beneath his blue plaid shirt with the long sleeves rolled up to his elbows. The ends of the shirt hung loosely over his blue jeans.
“You must be Mrs. Davenport.” He stretched out a muscular hand to greet her. She met it with a weak handshake, unnerved by the conflicting emotions awakening inside of her.
“Pastor said the bus would get here right about this time,” he said tapping his watch. “He’s at a church convention and couldn’t meet you as he agreed, so he asked me to come instead. How was your trip from Crystal Falls?”
Suspicion kindled within her, hearing the strange man deliver the change of plans. She quickly scanned the surrounding. Seeing the shoppers going in and out of the few open businesses greeting him with friendly waves eased her into trusting him. Besides, she rationalized, he wouldn’t know her name or where she came from if the pastor hadn’t told him. Observing him keenly and realizing, too, she had either to trust him or be stranded in the strange land, a gentle intuitive push to abandon the suspicion took down her guard.
“The trip was long and tiring.” She spoke with a voice void of the emotions she was enduring.
He looked away from her to her bags. “Well, let me get these off this wet sidewalk. It’s been raining just about every day for a week now.” Fixing his eyes up to the clouds, he rambled with delight, “We don’t mind though. It gets hot up here this time of year, so we welcome the rain to cool us down.”
He stuck one of the smaller bags under his arm, grabbed two of the bigger ones, and carried them across the street, where he loaded them onto the back of his pick-up truck. She waited as he made the trip two more times. Finally, with the last bag under his arm, she walked across the street with him and stood by the door on the passenger side. He pushed the bag into a small space he carved out and hurried to open her door. She climbed into the seat and shuffled a bit. When he was sure she was comfortable, he closed her door and hopped in on the driver’s side.
“You look like a fine lady, Mrs. Davenport. I hope you’ll be staying in Beautiful for a while.”
She took off her hat and smoothed down the short strands of light brown hair ruffled out of place. “And you are?” Her voice was calm, but she was still uneasy. She didn’t even turn to look at him when she asked.
“I’m sorry I didn’t introduce myself. They call me Slone.”
“I’m Victoria. Davenport.” She added her last name as if it was an afterthought. “Thank you for meeting me, Slone. I don’t believe Pastor Avery would have sent you if he didn’t trust you to do what I asked of him.”
“No, ma’am. He wouldn’t,” Slone agreed before a thoughtful pause. “He said I should take you to a house on Grover Street?”
It was meant to be a statement, but it came out as a question buried in disbelief. No one had lived in the old house for more than a decade. She nodded, suppressing the anxiety she detected rising above the other emotions tightening her stomach in a knot.
“As you wish.”
He started the engine, shifted into gear, and pulled onto the road. He drove a few blocks and turned onto a wider street with four lanes. Two and three-story buildings lined both sides of that street.
“This is Main Street. Here, you’ll find restaurants and places to shop.” He offered the information as if it was a tour.
It was vibrant with more people strolling the sidewalks. Young men hanging out of their cars with loud music stopped in the middle of the street to chat. He slowed, tooted his horn, and passed around them in the open lane. The doors of more businesses along that street were opened. Some had old men sitting on wooden benches at their entranceway. They waved as Slone passed them.
“There's our movie theater,” he pointed to a building. “The movies are not current, but they keep us entertained.”
She looked at the theater but strained for a better view of the higher floors, where bright colorful curtains swayed in windows.
“Those are apartments. I wouldn’t live in them though. With the crowd and loud music all hours of the night, I don’t see how anyone gets a good night’s sleep up there.”
Victoria only listened.
Further along, a smooth paved driveway curved off the street. Slone shook a finger in its direction. “Now, over there is where I would live if I didn’t already own a home.”
The approval sent her extending her neck toward it with curiosity, and she glimpsed a three-story building behind thick flowery shrubs and trees. Children ran around on a small playground there. She took in the quick view and then centered herself, again, in the seat, silently combing the street for a familiar sight. Nothing triggered a memory. It was like she had never been there before.
They came to the town’s only traffic light at an intersection. It changed to red, and he stopped. “We have a night club too. White Roses.” He motioned with a jut of his chin to a building a short distance ahead. White lights illuminated the name in big elegant letters, and a single white rose flashed on and off below it. He cut his eyes over to her. “If you’re into that sort of thing.”
She detected it was an inquiry but didn’t respond. The light changed to green, and he turned off the street, crossing over the railroad track onto a narrow road touched with overgrown shrubs. He followed it into an old neighborhood where small ranch style homes, some painted pink, light blue, and green, sat behind chain-linked fences on both sides of the road. He carefully navigated around children playing in water-filled potholes and waved back at neighbors sitting on their front porches as he made way to the house.
"Our people are very friendly. You will love being here."
Victoria glanced over at him, forcing away from her mind's eyes images of extravagant mansions hidden behind tall neatly trimmed hedges and high walls in the quiet gated community of Crystal Falls. She reeled back her thoughts to the day she decided to come and searched within herself for confirmation she had not acted foolishly, for everything she saw suggested it would take time getting used to being there.
“How much farther before we get to the house?”
“It’s on the other side of that playground,” Slone pointed, assuring her they didn’t have far to go. From the corners of his eyes, he saw relief warming her face.
A long train roared down the tracks, a few yards from the playground where more children played. They ran toward it with pebbles in hand, amused at the mischief that was about to ensue. Amidst the mayhem, a little girl fell, and a boy ran to her, offering a hand. She took it, and he helped her from the ground. As she dusted dirt from her knees, the boy stared. She looked away from him, brushing her hair behind her ears. It drew Victoria’s attention, and she looked back over her shoulder, mesmerized.
Slone noticed. “Her name is Rayne. She lives in the house across from where you’ll be staying.”
“Rayne,” Victoria echoed with a light voice. “She looks to be the age I was the last time I was here.”
Slone lived in Beautiful his whole life and knew the people who lived there. Victoria didn’t look like anyone he ever saw there before. He would remember. He was sure. “You’ve been here before? In Beautiful?” The shock was apparent.
She nodded. “My mother lived here. She brought me to visit once or maybe twice.”
“Who’s your mother?”
She was silent again.
“Is she the reason you came back?” Slone pried.
“Why did you come?”
Victoria stared out the window with hopes he would sense she didn’t want to engage him further.
Discerning she didn’t, he voiced, nonetheless, “I understand if you don’t want to tell, but know that whatever it is that brought you back, I hope it’ll keep you here for a while.”
Reaching Grover Street, Slone pulled into a driveway, and stopped. Staring at the house, he added with suspicion, “It seems someone made it here before us.”
The old house, in the middle of the freshly manicured yard, sported a fresh coat of olive-green paint and stood out like it was new. Tall columns at each corner of the wooden-railed front porch, spanning the full width of the house, were trimmed in beige. A matching love seat near a round table occupied the far end of the porch. There was an elegant gold lantern-shaped sconce mounted on the side of a new oval glass door. Under each window on both sides of the door, were a pair of white fan-back wicker chairs with green floral print cushion seats. Curtains swaying lightly in the open windows, suggested there was life beyond the front porch.
“Pastor Avery hired someone to prepare the house for me.” She spoke with a quiet voice, as she scrutinized the work.
Slone squinted, seeing the nose of a black jaguar poking out from the carport at the back of the house.
“Is Mr. Davenport joining you?”
She shook her head. “No.”
“There's a car-”
“I had it delivered ahead of me.”
He unlatched his seatbelt, but she didn’t move. Water dripping from an unsightly gutter hanging loosely at the side of the house caught her attention. She closed her eyes and escaped to a vivid image of her intimate guest house amidst a lush garden of lilacs and daffodils. A breath of despair ascended from deep within her, and she opened her eyes. When she spoke again, her words revealed both a longing and a sentiment.
“My mother was born here, you know. She left right after high school. She said she wanted more than what this little old town had to offer her. Such an adventurous woman my mother is. Born way before her time if you ask me.”
Slone listened, both perplexed and intrigued. She was so guarded during the ride that he didn’t expect more than a thank you when they arrived. But the sudden revelation begged him for conversation, and possibly even more.
“If you need anything while you're here, anything,” he stressed, “You have only to ask me.”
“Right now, I only need you to open my door, and if you will, take my bags inside.” She was finally composed.
Slone obliged, offering his hand to help her out of the truck. She took it, noting the roughness and dirt under his fingernails. She wondered how she missed it in the earlier handshake. Steadying her feet on the ground, she straightened her dress and made her way up the five bricked-layer steps to the front porch.
“Mrs. Davenport. You finally made it,” a zealous voice greeted her. She stopped to acknowledge the plump woman with a colorful head wrap, coming out of the house. She had a spirit of youthfulness and beauty that age had not stolen from her face. Her deep brown smiling eyes danced with nervous exhilaration as she stuffed a dishrag into the pocket of her apron and extended a moist hand to her.
“Dorothy,” Victoria repeated, accepting her hand with raised eyebrows. An awkward moment passed before Dorothy brought herself to speak again.
“I took the liberty to make some cold lemonade. I wasn’t sure what you’d like, but it’s been so hot these days, I reckon I couldn’t go wrong with lemonade.”
“Lemonade is fine.” Victoria moved passed her into the house.
The beige walls in the living room were empty. Under the window to her left, sat a brown leather sofa on a shiny cherry wood floor. A matching love seat was angled near it in the corner. Centered on a colorful square rug was a glass table with a bouquet of live daffodils that brought life to the décor. To her right, a matching recliner and ottoman faced a brick fireplace that teased her memory, but she couldn’t recall it.
A short narrow passageway leading from the living room opened into the family room. She went through it, passing the entrance to a kitchen on her left. A step down brought her into the family room. The two-piece floral sofa in front of a wooden center table faced a huge window. Victoria shifted the curtain and assessed the backyard.
Dorothy joined her with the glass of lemonade on a bamboo tray. She took the glass, sipped once, and gave it back to her.
“Show me to my room.”
Dorothy set the tray on the center table and lead her to another narrow hallway where doors opened to three small bedrooms. She took her into one at the end. “I prepared this room for you. It’s bigger than the other two. I imagined you’d prefer it. The bed is bigger, and it has a private bathroom,” she gushed, pointing to it.
Victoria placed her purse and hat on the bed, brushed a hand delicately over the white cotton sheet, and looked around the room. The wood-framed bed, a small table on one side, and a six-drawer oak dresser and mirror on the other side furnished it. By the window, where a white curtain hovered about an inch from the floor, a wooden rocking chair added to the room’s décor. Her private thoughts begged for something familiar.
“If you prefer, I can prepare one of the other rooms for you,” Dorothy offered, noting the distant look in her eyes.
Victoria took off her shoes and sat cross-legged at the edge of the bed. “Bring me my bags.”
Dorothy didn’t move, so she repeated with a gentle command, “Slone is getting my bags. Help him bring them in to me. Please.”
“Yes. Yes, Ma’am,” Dorothy stuttered. “‘So much for a warm welcome,” she mumbled, hurrying out the room.
When she was gone, Victoria went down the hallway to view the room at the other end of it, thinking it must be in there where she and her mother slept when they visited. She was trying to remember. Or, was it the next room- the middle one? She second-guessed and peeked into that one, too. Both rooms had a white Formica dresser and a full-size bed with white metal headboard. A soft off-white rug covered the floor. She went further into the room.
Memories of her mother’s arms around her, a comb going through her hair, and a goodnight kiss upon her forehead surfaced. But it could have been anywhere, a thought cautioned her. London. Milan. Dakar. Those places she was sure.
It was nearly forty years since she was in that house, and her mother never reminisced about the visit. Now, the memories she wanted to come alive were pushed back so far, she couldn’t reach them. Victoria went back to her room, or what she imagined was her grandparent’s room, and curled up on the bed.
It was close to midnight when she awoke. She sat up in the dimmed room, with its only source of light coming through the bathroom door, opened about an inch. A nightgown draped over the footboard came into focus. She reached for it. At her bedside was a pair of slippers. Stepping into them, she didn’t think who put them there. She was accustomed to having that type of service most of her adult life.
In the bathroom, she was jolted into a new reality. A plush red three-piece set bathmat spread out on the white ceramic flooring added a touch of class to the modest master bathroom. She retrieved a folded towel from a shelf near a single sink cherry vanity stuck to the wall and just stood. Her eyes scanned the room on their own, noting in detail, the absence of everything she left behind.
The staggered air jet design massage spa tub caught her attention. It was the one thing she was specific in her instructions to the pastor about having. Her full appraisal of it came with subdued approval, for she was not tempted to indulge in it yet. After all, it was near midnight. She settled, instead, for a warm shower to refresh from the long bus ride and crawled back into the bed.
The night passed in what she reasoned was only a few minutes. She had just fallen asleep, she felt, when a loud bang woke her.
“Edward, did you hear that?”
The words came without thought, and she sat up with her heart pounding to face the empty side of the bed. Daylight flowing through the window to the extra pillow next to her. Victoria took it and held it to her bosom tightly. It was a year since her husband died in a tragic accident, and she was not used to taking care of things on her own. She thought about their only son, Noah, and for the first time, wished she had taken his advice to not come. Another bang came louder, commanding her to see about it. She put the pillow down and got off the bed doubting her readiness for the role.
“Dear God, Edward should be here to handle this,” she whined, draping a long white silk robe over the white knee-length nightgown, and hurried out to the front porch.
Dark clouds hid the sun, but the sounds of nature still greeted the hazy morning light. A bird chirped and flew from a tree with branches stretched so wide she could touch them from the wooden rail at the edge of the porch. Dogs barked in the distance, fueling her concern about what she might encounter out there. Unsure, she waited for another bang to detect the location of its source. The seconds passed in silence like hours, and after she’d had all she could stand of it, she decided to go back to her room. It was then she heard a truck coming from the back of the house. Slone brought it to a stop when he saw her and got out, pulling off his gloves.
“Good morning, Victoria.” He came up the steps to greet her.
“What are you doing here?” She asked in a joyless voice.
“I came to fix your gutter before heading to church this morning. We’re sure to get more rain today.” He forced out the explanation amidst the disapproval in her eyes.
“You can’t come onto my property at your whim. You scared me half to death,” she panted with a hand up to her chest.
He narrowed in on the huge diamond ring on her finger, and her thin delicate hand resting against her brown skin. Tiny moles scattered about her chest and shoulders were exposed in the white laced V-neck nightgown Dorothy unpacked, and he draped over the footboard the night before. The robe, loosely tied around her slender waistline, left room to explore more of her. And, he did, drifting down to the white furry three-inch heel slippers he left at her bedside, too. She was not like any woman in Beautiful, he admitted, as a desire for her crept into him. His eyes met hers again, and she pulled the robe in closer, covering her shoulders.
“Wait here.” Victoria disappeared into the house and returned quickly with cash in her hand. “Here. Take this. It should be enough for your troubles.”
Slone didn’t reach for it. “It was no trouble at all.”
“Take it, nonetheless. I always pay my helpers before I ask them to leave.”
“I’m not one of your helpers. It’s what we do for each other in these small towns. But considering where you come from, you probably wouldn’t know anything about that.” He looked at her with pity and she didn’t know what to do about it. No one ever looked at her that way. She thought to walk away, but her feet didn’t move. Slone held her attention with a desperate hope she would say something to redeem herself, but she didn’t.
“Don’t you know who I am?”
The question came with a hint of royalty, which would have otherwise intrigued him, but he wasn’t. He leaned back against the rail, studying her.
“Didn’t Pastor Avery tell you who I am?”
“I didn’t ask,” he shrugged.
“You should have. I’m a very wealthy woman.” She managed a twinkle between batting eyes.
Slone scoffed. “That’s too bad. For when I thought of you this morning, you amounted to more than dollars and cents.”
She took the words as a jab at her self-worth, and the sting was vivid. She squared her shoulders and tightened the robe around her to contain it.
Seeing the effect, Slone decided to surrender. He eased away from the rail. “I’m sorry, Victoria. You must forgive me. The women in Beautiful are usually out of bed before sunrise. I thought you would be as well. I didn’t think I’d be disturbing you. I’ll be more mindful the next time.”
Looking at the dark clouds, certain he had done right to come, he tipped his hat to her and left, jogging down the steps. From his truck, he watched her twirl back into the house with the train of the long white robe disappearing as she closed the door behind her.