Finding his mother is the only reason Adrian Rutledge would set foot in this backward place. In fact, he can't get out of town fast enough. At least, that's his attitude before Lucy Peterson works her magic on him. The cafe owner is nothing like what he thought he needed, yet she's all he wants. Then the job pulls him back to the city and Adrian slips into the life he once worked hard to achieve. And while it may not fit the way it did, he can't simply abandon it. Or can he? Because suddenly he's tempted by everything Lucy's offering.
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April 13, 2009
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Excerpt from Someone Like Her by Janice Kay Johnson
"Every table full except the reserved one, and it's a Tuesday." Carrying two glasses of iced tea, Mabel paused to grin at Lucy Peterson. "Those new soups are a hit."
She continued into the crowded dining room of the caf�. Lucy, who had just finished ringing up a customer, looked around with satisfaction. Mabel was right. Business kept getting better and better.
The bell over the door rang. Lucy's head turned as her guest slipped in, her carriage confident, her gaze shy. The hat lady.
Last time Lucy had seen her, the day before yesterday, she'd carried herself decorously and yet with regal authority. The pillbox hat had said it all. She was often Queen Elizabeth--the second, she always emphasized. She didn't actually look much like Queen Elizabeth II, being slender rather than matronly in build, with hair that had been blond when she first appeared in Middle-ton, perhaps ten years ago. Now her hair was primarily white, as wispy and flyaway as the woman whose head it crowned.
But today, she wore a flower-printed dress and a broad-brimmed hat festooned with flowers. Her face was softer, her carriage more youthful, her gaze vaguer.
This was always the awkward moment. Lucy had to pretend she knew who Middleton's one and only homeless person was. Calling her by the wrong name seemed so insulting.
Talk in the caf� hadn't dimmed at all. Everyone knew the hat lady was a project of Lucy's. Lucy's Aunt Marian called, "Your majesty," and resumed her one-sided conversation with Uncle Sidney, who almost never said a word, and failed entirely to notice the hat lady's astonished stare.
Lucy went to her and said in a gentle voice, "I'm so glad you could come to lunch today. Your table's right here, by the window. Did you see the crocus are blooming?"
The hat lady smiled at her, her face crinkling with pleasure. "God's gifts put man's best dreams to shame."
Okay. It was a clue. She still had a British accent, which was mostly a given, although not long ago she'd been Elizabeth Taylor, the accent wholly American. She had an astonishing gift for accents; a few months ago, she'd done a splendid Eliza Doolittle, starting with a nearly indecipherable Cockney accent skillfully revised over several weeks until she spoke with a pure, somewhat stilted upper-crust accent worthy of the most carefully tutored student.
Lucy had taken to rereading English literature and watching classic films so she wouldn't be completely lost every time the hat lady changed personas.
"Please. Sit down." Lucy gestured her to the tiny table for two in front of the bow window, which she'd reserved especially for the hat lady. Yellow and purple crocuses bloomed in the windowbox outside. Her shopping cart, neatly packed, was parked on the sidewalk where she could see it. That was why Lucy always saved the window seat for her. "Would you care for tea?"
She gazed with seeming delight and no boredom out the window until Lucy returned with a teapot, loose tea steeping inside. One did not offer the hat lady tea improperly made.
From the menu she chose only soup and a scone. Lucy had tried persuading her to have a hearty meal when she was here, but had never succeeded.
"Won't you join me?" she did ask, with vague surprise as if unaware there was a busy restaurant around them, and that Lucy was in charge.
"I might sit down with you for a moment a little later," she promised. Her friend had aged noticeably these past few months, Lucy noted with dismay. Her spine was as straight as ever, her pinkie finger extended as she sipped tea, but she must have lost weight. She seemed frail today. If only she could be persuaded to settle into a rented room! Hiding her worry, Lucy asked, "How are you?"
She tilted her face up. Her blue eyes, fading like her hair, seemed unusually perceptive all of a sudden, as if she saw the doubts and unhappiness Lucy scarcely acknowledged even to herself. In a voice too low for anyone at neighboring tables to hear, she said, "I might ask you the same."
Lucy's mouth opened and closed.
After a moment, the cornflower-blue eyes softened, looked inward, and she murmured, "Did you know the sorrow comes with the years?"
"I..." Something seemed to clog Lucy's throat. "Yes. Yes, I did."
This smile seemed to forgive her. "Grief may be joy misunderstood."
Oh! That line she'd heard. Somewhere, sometime. It had to have been written, or said, by a Beth, or Liza, Lizbet, or Elizabeth... Yes! Lucy thought in triumph. Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Of course. The hat lady was very fond of her poetry. Only, the first couple of things she said had seemed so sensible, if also profound, Lucy hadn't recognized them as poetry.
"Miss Browning," she said, "I'm so glad you could join me today."
She meant to get back to the hat lady and sit with her, as promised. She did. But the kitchen ran out of spinach, and she had to race to Safeway for more, then Aunt Marian expressed her opinion at some length on the very peculiar soup--which was delicious, but she did miss the split pea Lucy used to offer. And then Saman-tha, Lucy's youngest and most compatible sister, who had recently opened a bed-and-breakfast inn, suggested they join together to put on a murder mystery weekend, with the guests staying at Doveport B and B and Lucy catering the meals. Samantha had scarcely left than Lucy's niece Bridget came in to apply to be a waitress, her air of defiance suggesting to Lucy that Bridget's mother hadn't liked the idea of her working. Bridget was resisting the idea of staying close to home after graduation and doing her first two years at the community college in Port Angeles rather than going away. Was she trying to earn enough to pay a significant part of her own expenses? If so, there was no doubt whose side Lucy was on.
Still, she wished every decision she made didn't have family repercussions. The tiniest stone spread ripples of gossip, hurt feelings, righteous indignation. That was the problem with having such a large family who all lived so close by. Making a face, Lucy thought wistfully, Why can't one side or the other live in Minneapolis or Houston instead? Anywhere but here?
Dad's family, by preference. His sister, her Aunt Lynn, was a particular trial. Come to think of it, Lucy didn't like most of her cousins on Dad's side, either.
The trouble was, Dad had a sister and a brother, who had kids, all of whom had already started families of their own. Mom had two sisters, and they had kids, and... Aagh! There was a reason Lucy had yearned to leave Middleton for most of her life.
She ran the cash register as the full restaurant gradually emptied, and by the time she thought to look at the small table in the bow window, it was empty. Erin, another employee, was starting to clear it, and Lucy was disappointed to see that the soup bowl was half-full, and Miss Browning hadn't even finished her scone.
Oh, dear, she thought. If only the hat lady would fill up when she was here. Or take leftovers in a doggie bag. She accepted invitations to dine, but wouldn't come more than a couple of times a week. Lucy knew that she did get food elsewhere. George, down at Safeway, saw to it that expired canned goods and slightly wilted produce got set outside the back door when the hat lady's route took her that way. And Winona Carlson, who ran the Pancake Haus out by the highway, fed her breakfast at least another couple of days a week. Still... When Lucy thought about the hat lady--gentle, whimsical, yet somehow sad--she worried.
Today, though, she was too busy to do more than shake her head and feel slightly guilty that she hadn't made time to sit down, if only for a minute or two. Then she went back to work in the kitchen, prepping for dinner.
Hands busy, she let her mind wander. That one ach-ingly perceptive look from the hat lady set her to analyzing why she'd felt so down lately.
Of course, she knew in part: this wasn't the life she'd dreamed of having. Like her niece Bridget, she'd been sure she would leave Middleton behind and never be back except for visits. But after college she'd let herself get enveloped again by family. First a job at the caf�, the chance to be creative in the kitchen and the pleasure of seeing how her food was received. Wan lettuce and all-American comfort foods were gradually replaced by wraps, spinach and romaine salads and her signature soups. When the opportunity to buy the caf� came up, she'd still told herself this didn't have to be permanent. She'd improve business and make a profit when she sold the caf� in turn. Perhaps she could start a restaurant in Seattle or San Francisco, or get a job as an executive chef.
Her hands went still as her chest filled with something very like panic. All of a sudden she had a terrible urge to turn the sign on the door to Closed, scrap preparation for dinner and just... run away.
Lucy grimaced. She was far too responsible to do any such thing. Okay, then; why not put the caf� up for sale and use the proceeds to travel for a couple of years? Give in to all the yearnings that made her so restless. Spend a year traveling between hostels in... Romania. Or Swaziland. Or...
The hat lady's face popped into her mind, and a smile curved her mouth. England. How silly of me! Of course it has to be the British Isles. Images of thatched roofs and hedgerows, church spires and castle towers rose before her mind's eye. Perhaps she would bike between villages, staying as long as she chose in each. She'd have to start over financially when she came home, if she ever came home, but she was young. At least she'd have lived a little before she settled into being a small-town businesswoman.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning would certainly approve.
Only a pair of tourists sat in front eating pie in the late afternoon when the front door opened so precipitously, the bell rattled and banged against the glass. Startled, Lucy let the dough she'd been kneading drop and peered over the divider between the kitchen and dining room.
It was George who'd rushed in, expression distraught. George, fifty-five and counting the years until retirement, who Lucy had believed had only one speed: measured, deliberate. George, who now let the door slam behind him with a bang.
"Lucy! Did you hear?"
Hands covered with flour, she used her shoulder to push the swinging door open and go into the dining room. She was vaguely aware that both the tourists and gray-haired Mabel, who was wiping down tables, had turned to stare. "Hear? Hear what?"
"The hat lady was hit crossing the highway." His eyes were red-rimmed and he looked as if he might cry. "She was pushing her shopping cart, and apparently didn't look. God." He rubbed a hand over his face. "She's not dead, but it doesn't sound good."
"Did they take her to the hospital?"
"But... she doesn't have insurance."
A silly thing to say, since the hat lady also didn't have a name. Not a real name, one that was her own for sure.
"I didn't hear anybody quibbling." So he'd been to the hospital.
Lucy took a deep breath. "I'll get over there as soon as I can."
He nodded and left, perhaps to spread the word further.
Lucy called for Mabel to take over the dough, and remembered another line written by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, whose poetry she, too, had loved, back when she was romantic and firmly believed her path would take her far from too familiar Middleton.
Life, struck sharp on death, Makes awful lightning.
Adrian Rutledge was immersed in the notes his associates had made on legal precedents for a complex case that would be coming to trial next month when his phone rang. He glanced at it irritably; he'd asked Carol, his administrative assistant, not to interrupt him until his three o'clock appointment.
He reached for the phone immediately, however. She wouldn't have bothered him without good reason.
She cleared her throat. "Mr. Rutledge, there's a woman here who doesn't have an appointment."
His eyebrows rose. People without appointments rarely bothered a partner in a rarified Seattle law firm.
If they did, Carol was quite capable of sending them on their way.
"She says it's about your mother."
"My mother," he repeated. He felt as if he were sounding out a word in Farsi or Mandarin, a language utterly foreign to him. Yeah, he knew what a mother was; yeah, he'd had one, but at this moment he couldn't picture her face.
"Yes, sir." Carol's generally crisp tones were hesitant.
"What about my mother?" he asked.
She cleared her throat again. "This woman... ah, Ms. Peterson, says she's in the hospital and needs you."
In the hospital? That meant...she was alive? His heart did a peculiar stutter. Adrian had assumed she was dead. Maybe preferred thinking she was.
Oh, hell, he thought in disgust, this was probably some kind of hoax. Still, he didn't seem to have any choice but to hear her out. "Send her in," he ordered, and hung up.
The wait seemed long. When the door did open, he saw Carol first, elegant in a sleek black suit and heels that made the most of her legs. He quit noticing his administrative assistant the moment the other woman walked in. Nor was he aware of Carol quietly closing the door behind her. He couldn't take his eyes from this unexpected visitor.
He guessed her age as late twenties. Lacking the style of an average urban high schooler, she was as out of place as a girl from small-town Iowa wandering into the big city for the first time. Of middle height and slender, she wore a dress, something flowery that came nearly to her knees. Bare legs, flat shoes. Her hair, a soft, mousy brown, was parted in the middle and partially clipped back. He doubted she wore any makeup at all, which was too bad; she might be beautiful after a few hours at a good salon. It was her eyes that he reacted to, despite himself. Huge and blue, they devoured his face as she crossed the room, the intensity enough to make him shift in his seat.
Adrian had never seen her in his life, and couldn't imagine how she'd found him.
Showing no emotion, he held out a hand. "I'm Adrian Rutledge."
She shook with utter composure. "My name's Lucy Peterson."
"Ms. Peterson." He gestured at a chair. "Please. Have a seat."
"Thank you." She sat, smoothing her skirt over her knees.