The Gilded Hour Page 165

“Oh.” Anna considered this. “Just the two of them?”

He nodded. “Bambina was standing just there—” He pointed. “Watching them go.”

Bambina, who never hesitated to find something about Ned to criticize. Anna said, “There’s a line from Shakespeare that comes to mind, something Aunt Quinlan says now and then. ‘Methinks the lady doth protest too much.’”

“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Jack said. “But here’s an idea. Let’s forget about all that for an hour. No talk of Bambina or Ned or anybody else. Just for an hour, while I introduce you to my favorite places.”

But then he started, he admitted readily, in the biggest of the greenhouses, which was not his favorite place. Rows of pots stretched out, as carefully ordered as a regiment of soldiers.

“There must be five hundred of them,” Anna said.

“Closer to seven hundred fifty,” Jack said. “And I’ve had my hands on every one of them.”

At her surprised look he said, “In March when it’s time to sow the seeds we’re all pressed into service. While you were on your way to the island with the girls to see their father buried, I was here, up to my elbows in loam and manure. Next year you’ll be here too, right next to me.”

“Will I?” She lifted a shoulder. “There are worse ways to spend a day.”

“And better ones,” he said, and pulled her into the shade of a shed, where he pressed her up against the wall and kissed her breathless.

•   •   •

THEY ENDED THE tour by collapsing to the ground under a pear tree. In a month’s time, given rain and sunshine, the small hard fruits would be ready to fall, gravid with juice, into a cupped palm. Things changed so rapidly, sometimes it took her breath away.

“That was a deep sigh,” he said. “Exhausted? Unhappy? Both?”

“Not unhappy. Not at all. I was just thinking how quickly things change, but sometimes for the better. Not always for the better, of course.” An image of Janine Campbell came to her, unbidden. She hoped that Janine’s boys were healthy and learning how to be happy.

Jack ran his knuckles over her shoulder. “It’s not a sin to leave your patients behind for a few days.”

“I know that. Or let’s say, I have learned that.” She looked back toward the house, where someone was banging on a bell with great abandon.

“The dinner bell,” Jack said. “Time to get back.”

He stood up and offered his hand, pulled her to her feet.

“So what’s next?” she wanted to know. “What will we be doing?”

“Eating,” he said. “For hours we’ll sit around the table and watch the kids run themselves ragged until they’re tired enough to be rounded up and scrubbed down and put to bed. The cousins will play their instruments and if Mama has had enough wine, she’ll sing and make all of us sing with her. We’ll toast Massimo’s birthday, and my parents’ anniversary. The old stories will get told, about how Mama and Pa met. Every couple has to tell that story, and they’ll want us to tell ours, too.”

She must have made a face, because he laughed and squeezed her hand. “I’ll take care of that, no need to worry.”

“Oh, I’m sure you’ll tell a story,” she said, trying not to grin.

“Then we’ll eat some more and talk some more. A little before sunset—about three hours from now—we’ll walk over to that rise”—he pointed—“and watch as the longest day of our year comes to an end. How does that sound?”

“Good,” she said. “So what are you going to say about how we met?”

“You’ll have to wait and hear it for yourself.”

“I think I had better come up with a contingency plan.”

“You think I’ll embroider the truth?”

“Jack,” she said, rubbing her face against his sleeve. “You’re a lot like your sisters that way. Everything has to be embroidered, or it’s just not finished.”

•   •   •

DINNER WAS NOT quiet, but quieter than Anna had imagined. There were two reasons: the food demanded attention, and when voices did start to rise and conversations to cross, Jack’s mother would half stand up, her palms on the table, her arms straight, and cast a gaze over her family. Conversations settled down again to a steady patter.

At the next table the children made far more noise, and no one seemed to mind. Aunt Quinlan pointed this out, with some satisfaction.

“I wish Margaret were here to see that boisterous, happy children can in fact grow up to be reasonable adults. No straightjackets or corsets required.”

There were spots of high color on her cheeks, which could be attributed to the strong red wine she was so clearly enjoying, or simply to the fact that she was content. More important, she was holding a fork without any hint of pain, and eating with an appetite.

“You like it here,” Anna said to her aunt. “It reminds you of home.”

“I suppose it does remind me of Paradise,” said her aunt. “In all the ways that matter most.”

“You grew up in a town called Paradise?” Elise looked intrigued at this idea.

“I did,” Aunt Quinlan told her. “Long ago and far away. Now almost all my people are gone from there. Time is a river, my girl. Don’t ever forget that. Don’t any of you forget that.” And she smiled at Anna, to take the sting out of the truth.

•   •   •

LATER, WHEN IT was their turn to tell the story of their first encounter, Jack stood up and put a hand on Anna’s shoulder while he talked.

Jack said, “I walked into the church basement and there she was, in the middle of examining a little boy, a baby, really, who was sitting on her lap with his hands fisted in her jacket, as if she were all that kept him from drifting away into deeper waters. And she was just that. Then she realized that some of the children weren’t vaccinated, and how angry that made her. So she marched right up to a dragon of a nun—Elise will back me up, just ask her—and scolded her. She took up for those children like they were her own and she wouldn’t back down. And I knew it was her, the one I thought I’d never find. A strong woman, a smart, beautiful, uncompromising woman, and sure of her place in the world.”

His mother was smiling at Anna. “And what did you think when you first saw our Jack?”

“I heard his voice before I saw him and I thought, Oh, there’s a priest come to help. And then a little later, when I did look at him and saw him smiling at me I thought: He’s a priest. How sad.”

•   •   •

WHEN THE FIRST hint of twilight slipped across the sky just an hour later, Anna sat with Jack on the rise that overlooked all of the farm and the countryside beyond. They were alone, and not alone: the elder aunts had shepherded all the children off to bed, but the grown-ups were nearby, scattered over the hillside in twos and threes. Now and then a voice came to them, cajoling or scolding, singing or laughing.

An earthy, clean scent rose up from the ground as it gave up the day’s heat, mingling with punk-stick and wood smoke, the pennyroyal and sweet everlasting and wild bergamot that grew wild along the edges of fields and pastures. All the smells mingled together to float on a breeze that rose and fell like the sea.

She let her eyes roam over the farm buildings, the hothouses and greenhouses and barns and the apiary. The river wound its way along the fields to disappear into a small pond where the reflected blue of the sky began to give way to deeper reds and pinks and oranges all limned with gold. Colors so saturated and alive Anna imagined them falling to layer on her skin like flower petals.

In a silence threaded with whip-poor-will song and the low buzz of bees Anna tried to reconstruct the afternoon for herself.

She said, “I never once saw him talking.”

Jack pushed out a deep sigh that ruffled the hair on her nape.

“Not a word,” she said. “Though the girls never gave up petting and hugging and whispering.” Tonino hadn’t resisted, but neither had he shown any particular response.

“Rosa came to me,” Jack said. “She doesn’t understand why he won’t talk to them. I wasn’t sure what to say except that he needed our patience and understanding.”

“I wonder if we’ll ever know where he was for those weeks.”

Jack shrugged. “Maybe. He might be able to tell us himself, once he starts to believe that he’s safe.”

Just after dinner Anna had gone to check on the children where they slept in a single broad bed, Tonino tucked in between his sisters. Rosa’s breath hitched a little, a serious child even in sleep, no doubt making plans that would put everything right. She dreamed of a world in which little brothers were whole and unscarred and full of stories that came tumbling out like a stream over rocks. Time is a river.

“If he had come to us with broken bones I would know what to do for him. As it is I feel helpless, but I can’t let the girls see that.”

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