Authors: Hope Ramsay
“What is it you want, Uncle Mark? I’ve already told Aunt—”
“I want to talk to you. First of all, I want you to know that the entire family was shocked by Tom’s public statements about your story.”
Jeff said nothing. His life had suddenly become theater of the absurd.
“I see I’ve surprised you,” Uncle Mark said.
Jeff shrugged. “I don’t give a flying fart what the family thinks about anything, really. I’m only here because Aunt Pam has gotten the Liberty Avenue merchants in an uproar. And they all think I’m part of some weird plan that she has to take over the real estate downtown. And, really, the only problem here is that I decided to drop the Lyndon from my name. And, you know, I’m not ever going to use that name again.”
The senator’s shoulders sagged a little. “I understand. And as for your aunt, she can sometimes be like a steamroller. I’ll see what I can do to smooth things over with the merchants. It won’t be the first time.”
“Thanks. That’s all I want. I’ll be going now.” Jeff turned and headed toward the door, but the senator blocked his way.
“Son,” Uncle Mark said, “you have every right to be furious with your father. We’re all furious with him. Family comes before politics, and Tom forgot that. So I just want you to think this through. If you want to strike back at your father, then you need to help me kill this nomination.”
It took a moment for Uncle Mark’s words to make it past Jeff’s anger. “Wait a sec. Are you saying you believe the story I wrote about Joanna Durand?”
“Of course I do. Durand’s family has a reputation for bending the rules when it comes to oil and gas. And her husband has more lobbying clients than a dog has fleas. I’m sure her husband and brother have been up to no good, and I could use your help in putting the kibosh on this nomination.
“By the way, I’m saying this, not as your uncle but as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Her confirmation hearing is set for this coming Thursday, and I have every intention of giving her a hard time.”
“Oh.” The adrenaline in Jeff’s body began to dissipate.
Mark Lyndon continued. “I’m not letting Joanna Durand’s nomination get out of committee. So, I’d like you to give my chief of staff a call and help him hunt down the smoking gun that will simultaneously clear your name and sink this nomination for good and all.”
Jeff stood there frozen. He hadn’t expected this. Not in a million years. “Okay, I’ll help, of course, but—”
“Son, if you want to change your last name, go right ahead and do it. No one could blame you. But it won’t change anything as far as I’m concerned, and I suspect you’ll discover that resigning from the Lyndon family is a whole lot harder than you might expect.”
ugo jumped on Melissa’s bed and settled on her pillow, purring like a finely tuned engine. That was unusual, since the cat hadn’t been upstairs since Grammy died. And never, in all the cat’s twelve years on the planet, had he ever jumped up on Melissa’s bed. So why had he chosen this morning, when her head was pounding like nobody’s business?
She batted the cat away and pulled the pillow over her head, hoping that would quiet the pounding. But the cat meowed loudly and then opened his claws on her shoulder.
She sat up. Her stomach lurched as she groped for her glasses. She should never have had the third margarita. The world came into focus as she settled her glasses on her nose. She picked up her cell phone and checked the time. It was well past noon.
So much for getting an early start on the rest of her life. She had barely enough time to take a shower before her one o’clock meeting with Walter Braden. She was about to put the phone down when she noticed that she had new voice mail messages—twelve, in fact—all from Jeff. She’d missed his calls last night because she’d inadvertently left her cell phone at home.
She listened to his voice mail. He’d actually called last night to invite her up to his cabin. And then he’d called again in the morning to invite her to breakfast.
Maybe she should return his calls.
No. He needed to come to her. Most definitely. And in the meantime, she needed to take a shower and move on with her life.
She got up, fed the cats, made some coffee, but instead of taking a shower, she called Walter and rescheduled her appointment for the next day. Then she set up her laptop on the kitchen table and started searching Jeff’s name. Wow. He had lied about a lot of things, starting with the fact that he was, really and truly, a published writer.
An hour later she was still sitting there reading Jeff’s articles—not just the one on Joanna Durand, but a dozen others. The man was a talented writer with a knack for writing profiles of the rich and famous. She was totally engrossed when someone tapped on her back door. Her heart took flight. Maybe Jeff had come to explain himself.
But it wasn’t Jeff.
Gracie Teague stood on her landing wearing her waitress uniform and a determined expression. She didn’t wait to be invited in. She just took the territory like General Patton rolling over France.
“I brought you a bacon and egg sandwich and some serious advice.” She plunked a sandwich wrapped in wax paper onto the kitchen table and eyed the computer, the empty bag of M&M’s, and the wastebasket filled with used tissues. “I should have come sooner.”
“I’m all right. Really. I didn’t make my appointment with Walter Braden, but I did reschedule for tomorrow. I’ve decided to take your advice and sell out, take the proceeds after taxes and find a beach somewhere with hot, gorgeous, rich men.”
She’d expected Gracie to be overjoyed with this news, but instead her mother’s BFF frowned. “You will do no such thing,” she said. “Sit down. I have something you need to hear.”
Melissa sat, and Gracie took the other chair. “There was an emergency meeting of the Liberty Avenue Merchants Association at oh dark thirty this morning. You know how everyone loved Harriet. And everyone remembers you as a little girl, and we’re all just a little overprotective of you, I guess. So this Jefferson Lyndon situation has gotten everyone into an uproar. Half the shop owners think Pam Lyndon sent that man to soften you up. To convince you to sell out.”
Gracie held up a hand. “I know, hon. Why would a man help you fix up the store if he’d been sent to convince you that keeping it going was pointless?”
Melissa nodded. “Exactly.”
“Well, not everyone is as logical as you and I. Anyway,” Gracie said with a little gleam in her eye, “at the meeting this morning, some of the merchants took up a collection to help you with your taxes. It’s not much, but we figured it might be enough to buy you some time. I was nominated to go down to the county clerk’s office to make a payment on your behalf. But when I got there, I found out that someone had already paid your taxes in full.”
“That’s right. Paid in full first thing this morning, just an hour before I got there. The clerk wouldn’t tell me who. She said it was a privacy matter or something. As if there’s any privacy in a town as small as Shenandoah Falls.”
“You think Jeff paid my taxes?” The weight in Melissa’s chest began to lift.
“That would be my guess. Now, why would a man do a thing like that?”
Melissa tried to think of a good business reason and drew a blank. “Because he believes in independent bookstores?” It was lame.
“Or maybe he believes in you?” Gracie said, covering one of Melissa’s hands with hers.
Melissa’s eyes filled up, but this time the tears weren’t angry. “And I believe in him, Gracie,” she whispered, her lips trembling. “I’ve been sitting here reading the things he’s written, and I can’t help myself. I think what he wrote in that story about the Durand nomination is true. I think he ran away from New York because even his father refused to stand by him.”
“You know,” Gracie said, “if my daddy had publicly disavowed me, I think I might return the favor. You know, by dropping the hyphenated part of my last name.”
“Really? Because now that I’m sober and I’ve read his story and the reaction to it, I’ve come to the same conclusion.”
Just then Dickens jumped up on the kitchen table, sat down facing Melissa, and proceeded to meow at her as if he were scolding her or something. Hugo followed suit, only he yowled in a way that was practically mournful.
“Mercy,” Gracie said. “I’ve never seen them do anything like that before.”
Melissa got up from the table. “It’s a sign, Gracie. They’ve been trying to tell me for days that Jeff belongs here. I just wasn’t listening.”
* * *
Melissa called Walter Braden back and canceled her meeting. Without a tax bill looming over her, maybe she could make a go of keeping Secondhand Prose alive, saving Hugo and Dickens’s home, and preserving a little piece of Grammy for a while.
And all because of Jeff, who had walked into her store and insisted on fixing it up. Not because he was paid to do it. Not because she’d asked him to do it. But because he had simply belonged there.
The cats knew it. And now Melissa did, too.
She needed to talk to him, so she decided the ball wasn’t in his court after all. The ball was in hers. She texted him.
We need to talk
Where are you?
I’m just leaving Charlotte’s Grove. Expect an apology call from Pam. I’ll be at the store in ten minutes.
No, not here. Too many busybodies. Where’s your cabin?
His emoticon was followed by an address in the Blue Ridge off Scottish Heights Road. She told him she’d meet him there in twenty minutes.
The cabin turned out to be high up on the ridge off a dirt road. Jeff certainly hadn’t been exaggerating when he’d said that he’d been living back in the woods.
It was an old place, built years before people had started putting up luxury vacation homes in the area. Its weathered logs and rustic stone chimney looked as if they’d been there for a century. It sat in a clearing, nestled between two gigantic oaks, on a ledge that provided a commanding view westward toward the Shenandoah Valley and the Allegheny Mountains beyond.
Jeff was waiting for her, sitting in an Adirondack chair on the covered porch. He stood up as she pulled her VW in behind his shiny Land Rover, and he was right there when she got out of the car.
“Let me explain,” he said before she had a chance to say one word of the speech she’d been rehearsing in her head. “I never—”
“You didn’t tell me the truth,” she blurted.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to mislead you. I just—”
“I know you didn’t. I get it. If I had a father who issued public statements about me, I’d want to divorce him, too. But you could have told me that. You could have trusted me.”
Jeff’s gaze intensified, his brown eyes full of emotion. “Are you telling me that you actually understand why I didn’t give you my full name?”
“Well, duh. I read what your father said about you. And it was brutal. But more important, it was just wrong. I spent a lot of time today reading some of the things you’ve written for
New York, New York
. They were wonderful articles, Jeff. You have a gift for words. So what he said was just not true. You’re a writer—a really good one. But the thing is, you should have been honest with me from the start.”
He let go of a long breath and closed his eyes for a moment. “I’m sorry I wasn’t honest, but I didn’t know you at first. And then…Well, I wanted to take care of your taxes before I said anything. Please tell me you never believed that crap that’s going around town about how Pam used me to set you up, because that’s just not true.”
“Of course I don’t believe that. If that was your purpose, you had a funny way of going about it. All that dusting and organizing and color coding. It didn’t make it easier to decide to sell the place, you know.”
“You aren’t going to sell it, are you? I’d hate to see that bookshop go out of business.”
Tears filled her eyes, and a lump the size of a peach stone swelled in her throat. She shook her head. “I never wanted to sell. I just had to.”
He took her by the shoulders and pulled her right into his arms. Her head hit his strong, steady shoulder, and she leaned on him like she’d never leaned on anyone in her life. The emotions she’d been denying finally found their way to the surface. She had to take off her glasses when the tears came. She cried for Grammy and her parents. She cried because, standing there in the circle of Jeff’s arms, she didn’t feel alone anymore. And finally, she cried because she didn’t have to close her store.
He held her tight, stroked her head, and gave her a place to stand, a place to be. Leaning on him was like coming home.
When the tears had run their course, she tilted her head up, but it was no use. She couldn’t see him because her vision was still smeared with tears. But it was all right, because he came toward her and started kissing away the tears that had run down her cheeks.
She started laughing then, which was weird because her heart had swelled to the point where breathing had become difficult. He ignored her laugh and continued to dispense little kisses all along her cheeks and over to her ear, where he whispered, “Listen to me, Melissa, for just one minute. I went up to Charlotte’s Grove, and I told Mark and Pam Lyndon that I was changing my name. I’ve already taken the first steps to do that legally. I also told Pam that she needed to call you to apologize for the way she acted the other day.”