The Gilded Hour Page 164

Jack took the reins in one hand and with the other he took her forearm. The dress she wore had wide sleeves of a light batiste, secured with a single button at the wrist. With a simple twist Jack opened the cuff. He pulled back her sleeve to run his fingers down the skin of her inner arm to trace the creases on her palm. Every nerve in her body snapped to life, and she pulled her arm away, laughing.

“Do you think I’m so easily distracted?”

“I know exactly how easily distracted you are,” he said. “But this is as much as I dare, under the circumstances. Do you remember the stories about us swimming in the river on the hottest summer days? This is the river. We could follow it to the farm if we were on foot.” Something in his tone aroused her suspicions and Anna turned to study his profile.

“I have no intention of swimming, Jack.”

He raised one eyebrow at her as if this were a challenge. Which, she supposed, it was.

She said, “Tell me how the houses are laid out. Give me a picture.”

He told her in his usual spare way: there were five houses in a rough half circle, set far enough apart and with fruit trees planted between them to provide some privacy. The biggest house, the one in the middle, belonged to his parents. They would eat all together at a long table under the pergola, with a view of the orchards and greenhouses. And they would sleep in the room he had had as a boy.

He shifted a little, and Anna poked him. “You’ve never had a girl in that room before, have you?”

“Define what you mean by had.” He closed his free hand around hers before she could poke him again. “Of course not. The only females who have ever stepped foot in that room are my mother and aunts when they helped with the housework.”

“Your sisters?”

“Only upon pain of death,” he said grimly.

“You had a room to yourself?”

He shrugged. “It’s a big house. When we had family parties I had to share with cousins. You won’t mind sharing the bed with Pasquale and Pietro, will you?”

“Very funny.”

He bowed from the shoulders. “You haven’t met them yet, so you don’t know how funny.”

He was in a good mood. They had done the impossible in finding Tonino, and fulfilled at least half of the promises made to Rosa. And he was proud to be bringing Anna home to his family.

If only there weren’t so many of them. Anna had devoted a good amount of time to learning names: his brothers, their wives and children. Between Chiara and Jack she had learned enough about each of them to give her a firm footing.

She said, “I’m ready to do battle to establish my place in the pecking order. It will be a bit of a challenge, but then my Italian isn’t very good, so I won’t know if I’ve succeeded or not.”

•   •   •

JACK HAD GIVEN strict orders to everybody—sisters-in-laws included—about how to greet Anna.

“You make her sound like a timid rabbit,” said his aunt Philomena. “I know your Anna, there is nothing timid about her. She is a strong woman and can hold her own.”

“That is true,” his mother said. “But we still don’t want to overwhelm her on her first visit.” And his mother’s word was final. There would be no mob to greet them. Anna’s aunt Quinlan and the Lees had been welcomed with all the good cheer and respect Jack expected, and would serve as a bit of a buffer between his wife and his female relatives.

From ahead came the sound of children caught up in some game, and the cousins had gotten out their instruments. Fiddles, a clarinet, a trumpet, an accordion in comfortable harmony. Women called to each other in Italian and English about bowls and dishes and children who needed attention, dogs in the way, the need to wipe a table. Jack only heard this in some corner of his mind. The bulk of his attention was focused on Anna and the children sitting behind them.

Rosa and Lia were talking to Tonino in a galloping whisper. If they never heard Tonino’s voice again, Jack thought, it might be a simple matter of never having the opportunity to get a word in edgewise. He glanced over his shoulder to make sure the boy wasn’t overwhelmed, and saw with some relief that he looked content, if a little glassy-eyed. As anyone would be, with such a sudden change in fortune.

As Jack brought the Rockaway to a halt everyone turned toward them.

Anna’s aunt Quinlan laughed out loud at the sight of them.


Rosa jumped up and threw out her arms. “Yes, this is our brother Tonino. Aunt Anna and Uncle Jack found him for us.”

•   •   •

FOR SOMEONE WHO could name every bone and muscle, every gland and nerve in the human body, Anna told herself, it shouldn’t be difficult to attach the names she had already memorized to the faces around her. Especially as the women were all sitting together, and she could look from face to face without apology.

Chiara’s mother, Mariangela, was very tall, while Carmela, married to the second oldest son, was very slight and hardly taller than her nine-year-old son. Susanna, daughter of the famous band director, had lost an eyetooth, but her smile was wide and genuine. The two youngest of the sisters-in-law—Benedetta and Lucetta—were more of a challenge; they looked so much alike that they might have been sisters. For the moment Anna would have to depend on the color of their skirts to distinguish them. How that would work at the dinner table she had no idea, but that was a problem for another time.

They sat in the fragrant shade of a grape arbor with the low buzz of honeybees not very far off, and together they made a study of Anna. They weren’t mean spirited about it; they spoke English, asked straightforward questions, and listened to her answers. And still Anna was reminded of the way a group of women passed a newborn back and forth to admire it. They saw everything, she knew very well: her posture, her features, the way she held her head, the tone of her voice, the dimples that she used to such good advantage. They watched her talking to the older women and to their children, and judged each for herself how well Anna met the challenges.

She didn’t have to pretend to like children. She didn’t even have to pretend to admire these particular children; they were all healthy, well mannered—at least under the watchful gazes of mothers and aunts—and curious. Like children everywhere they ran the full gamut, from the painfully shy to the very bold.

As her aunt was leaving to rest before dinner Mrs. Lee leaned down to talk into Anna’s ear. “And not one of them asked could they see my tail. Good, hardworking people. Kind at heart.”

•   •   •

THE CHILDREN TOOK her on as a project. The little ones climbed into her lap to show her their battle scars. She examined and exclaimed over skinned knees and scabby knuckles, admired the muscles the boys put on display, and declared herself very much interested in a tour of the best trees for climbing, the wild blueberry bushes, the rabbit hutches, the prize sow, the two foals in the pasture, a collection of pennies, a map of Italy, or their grandfather’s photograph of Garibaldi, signed by the man himself.

Before they got very far with this long list of chores, it was time to get dinner on the table. Anna offered to help, but was refused quite firmly. Instead while the sisters-in-law went off Jack appeared and spirited her away.

“Intermission,” she said in a mock whisper.

“That bad? You need rescuing?”

“Oh, no. It was very pleasant. And informative. Where are we going?”

“Grand tour.”

As soon as they were out of earshot she asked, “How am I doing, do you think?”

“I told you you’d win them all over, and you did.”

“Women with children are easily charmed,” she said. “Admire their offspring and you’ve won most of the battle. And they are healthy, your nieces and nephews. Healthy and full of life.”

“My mother will be pleased to hear that.”

Anna thought of Carmela, one of the two sisters-in-law who had emigrated from Italy, and whose English was least fluent. But she was also very bright, it seemed to Anna, and somewhat unexpectedly, the kindest and most friendly of them all. And she wasn’t well. There was nothing specific Anna could tell Jack, but she did voice her concern.

“I wondered if you’d notice about Carmela,” Jack said. “Mama worries about her.”

“My guess is that she’s anemic,” Anna said. “That can be addressed with diet, for the most part. If she asks me I’ll examine her, but I have to wait for her to ask.”

One brow lifted. “That’s not likely.”

“It might be easier than you think,” Anna said. “She has struck up a friendship with Elise, and Elise can be quietly persuasive. I’ll talk to her about it later this evening.”

Jack said, “I noticed that too, about Elise. I wouldn’t have imagined them as especially suited.”

“Female friendships are sometimes very mysterious,” Anna said. “But a true friendship between women is the strongest bond of all. Where is Elise, have you seen her recently?”

Jack made a low rumbling sound in his throat. “I saw her walking down toward the orchard with Ned.”

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