Read Improvisation Online

Authors: Karis Walsh

Improvisation (8 page)

BOOK: Improvisation
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“I spoke to her on the phone a few days ago, and she sends her love. She’s a very forgiving soul.”

Tina’s laughter ended with a sigh. Leave it to Peter to dredge up one of her happier memories. She seemed to have forgotten most of them. “Okay, we’ve gossiped and reminisced.
Now
can we get down to business? I have a few ideas for color schemes and print styles. Once you choose a general look for the business, I can adapt it to your various marketing tools.”

Tina spent over an hour with him, combining different fonts and palettes until he seemed pleased with the effect. When Peter had first contacted her, he’d asked for a complete PR package instead of the simple web design she usually offered. She had been tempted to say she wasn’t qualified, find someone else, but then she’d spent a few days considering the possibility of expanding her freelance business. He wanted her to design everything—from print ads to curtains for trade-show booths to seasonal in-store promotions—and unlike any nonfamily client, he didn’t care how qualified she was. She would come away from the experience with a brochure full of new services she could offer. It had seemed worth the sacrifice of a few short weeks.

She tapped her pages of notes on the desk until the edges were even and slid them into the folder. “Do you have the measurements for your booth at the home-and-garden show?” Peter hunted for the information in his stacks of papers, and she added it to her file. “I’ll come up with a few ideas for the drapes and tablecloths and bring them to you by the end of the week. Once you choose, I’ll get the order in, so we can get them made in time for the show. Then I’ll get to work on the website.”

She hooked her backpack over one shoulder and picked up her violin case. “I’ll give you a call before I show up. Or maybe Chloe can let you know.”

“Ha-ha.” He walked with her to the Corolla. “Do you want to come to O’Boyle’s tomorrow night? It’s an open session if you want to play, or you can just listen.”

The offer was tempting. The fiddle was meant to be played with other people, not alone in her room, and she already missed the fellowship she felt with Andy and other musicians in her network back home. “I really need to get some work done and get settled in the apartment,” she said, fastening a seat belt over her case. “But maybe next week.”

Chapter Six
 

Jan pulled a pan of herb-roasted red potatoes out of the oven and gingerly scooped them into a serving bowl using just the tips of her fingers. She licked her fingertips to soothe the slight burn and to taste the warmth of oil and thyme. Perfect. She felt grounded after cooking, although the feeling rarely lasted long. The visions of good food, a family gathered around a table, shared conversation spiced by shared flavors and smells. She longed for a life full of such moments, but she was willing to take the occasional hour here and there.

“Dinner’s ready, Dad,” she called as she balanced the bowl of potatoes in one hand and a platter of sliced meatloaf in the other.

“Smells great, pumpkin,” Glen said as he walked into the kitchen. His left arm was bound in a sling.

“Thanks. I thought we’d eat outside since it’s not too cold.” Jan pushed the door leading to her back porch open with one foot and slipped outside. Her dad followed, with a dish of pencil-thin asparagus in his good hand.

Jan went back into the kitchen and returned with a bottle of ketchup. She squeezed a puddle of it onto her plate and offered the bottle to her dad.

He waved it away. “I can’t believe you’re going to drown this good food in that stuff. You put it on everything when you were little, but I always thought you’d grow out of it.” He put down his fork and squeezed her hand. “Can you try not to tear up every time I say I remember something?”

“Sorry, Dad,” Jan said. She took a deep breath and poured some lemonade into their glasses. She was struggling to find her equilibrium in this new world, but she was thrown off balance by even the smallest reminders of the changes in store for her and her dad. No matter how she tried to structure her life, to find a new routine in the midst of this chaos, she knew every month, every day could bring a paradigm-shifting change. The security she had found with her new job and her new home had been disrupted, and she was thrown back to the constant movement she had experienced in childhood. Only this time, she would probably have to face most of it alone.

“Delicious asparagus,” her dad said in the upbeat tone he always used when he wanted to cheer her up.

“I found it at the farmers’ market, along with the fresh thyme I used on the potatoes.”

“You should make this exact meal when we invite your new friend for dinner. What’s her name? Tina?”

“Why would I invite her over? We’re not dating, Dad.”

He only smiled at her outburst. “I didn’t say you were. Don’t worry, I’m not expecting her to ask for your hand in marriage. But I’d like to meet the woman who’s going to be living in my apartment. And I’ll bet she’d like a home-cooked meal.”

Jan dipped a potato in ketchup and popped it in her mouth. She was not inviting Tina to her house and cooking a meal for her. Tina already seemed to see her as someone frumpy and boring, so serving meatloaf as if she were some sort of fifties’ housewife was so
not
going to happen. She wasn’t about to admit to her dad that she had been imagining Tina here with them. In her home, sharing a meal, complimenting her cooking. Taking her upstairs to bed after they ate. “I’ll see if she wants to meet us for lunch sometime. In a restaurant.”

“Ah, I see,” her dad said as he served himself another slice of meatloaf. “She must be too pretty to be trusted anywhere near your bedroom.”

“She’s not…I am not going to have a conversation about women or my bedroom with you.”

“Fine, I’ll stop teasing.” Her dad smiled, but it faded and his expression turned serious. “But I want to see you dating. Falling in love. So I don’t have to worry about you being alone.”

Jan took a drink of lemonade, letting the tart, icy liquid cool the sudden heat of emotion she felt spreading through her throat and tear-filled eyes. She carefully set her glass down so it evenly matched up with the ring of condensation it had left on the table. She would not let him guilt her into searching for love before she was ready. “I’ll date once I have the rest of my life in order.”

“Maybe if you let yourself fall in love, you wouldn’t mind so much when life doesn’t go as planned.”

Falling in love would only confuse things more. The idea of having a partner, a constant, in her life had its appeal, but it was fantasy. In her experience, love had been as fleeting as home, school, and friends. “I promise I’ll go out more once we’re more settled. But believe me, Tina is not what I need right now.”

“All right, I’ll drop the subject. For now,” her dad added. “Did I see a pie on the kitchen counter?”

Jan smiled and gratefully accepted the change in topic. “Strawberry-rhubarb. And ice cream. But you can’t have any if you keep discussing my romantic life.”

“Like you have one to discuss,” he muttered. “That was a joke, darling daughter,” he said when she glared at him. “I’ll stop now. I’m not going to risk losing dessert privileges.”

 

*

 

Tina let her car idle for a moment when she got back to the apartment on Thursday. Jan was sitting on her doorstep, reading a magazine. Another visitor. Already today, her meeting with Peter had gone later than expected because her Uncle Nick had stopped by the nursery to see her. He had caught her in a bear hug so tight and so long lasting, it squeezed the guilt right into her chest, where it now sat like a lump. Tina knew Nick had been very close to his older brother—close enough to name his only son, Peter, after her dad—and she had witnessed his despair at the funeral. But today she had looked at him through an adult’s eyes, not a child’s. Now she could begin to imagine how difficult it had been for him to not only lose a sibling, but also to lose touch with his brother’s family. Like Peter, he had sent cards and occasional gifts to her and her mom, but the distance between them had been too great to overcome. Tina’s mom had never felt comfortable with her husband’s family, and after he died she’d wanted nothing more to do with them. Tina had naturally followed her example, cringing inside every time she had to accept some financial assistance because it was her only way to make her mom’s last months as peaceful as she could. And she had hated the need to rely on them to help with hospice care.

In a moment of weakness, prompted by Nick’s struggle to overcome his emotions and the recognition of her part in their rift, she had agreed to go to Peter’s upcoming birthday dinner. Doubtless, it would mean another fun reunion with her grandmother, but she was mature enough to be civil for one night. Or too drunk to care what her grandmother said to her. She wasn’t sure yet which option she would choose, but alcohol was the early favorite.

And now the sight of Jan waiting for her made her wish she had canceled their appointment. She felt too raw to deal with a vulnerable, sexy woman, but she hadn’t thought to bring Jan’s number with her, and she’d deleted it from her phone after their first conversation. She was sure Peter had Chloe on speed dial by now, so she could have asked him to relay the message, but she hadn’t wanted to tell either of them about her project until she knew whether Jan had told them about her father. So she had no choice but to be polite but distant and get the meeting over quickly.

“Don’t you have another key?” she asked as she walked up the path. The apartment was one of four units in a horseshoe-shaped complex. Jan’s dad’s was in the back, farthest from the street and with a view of the alley behind it. Nothing fancy, but it was quiet and comfortable.

Jan closed her magazine and stood. “Yes, but I didn’t want to intrude on your privacy. While you’re staying here, it seems like your place.”

Tina frowned. Why didn’t anyone understand? She didn’t belong here, didn’t have a place in this city or in their lives. She was just passing through.

“Next time, go inside instead of sitting on the porch,” she said as she unlocked the door. Jan looked startled by the roughness in her voice, but she followed Tina inside in silence and shut the door behind them.

“I trust you not to go through my suitcases or steal my underwear,” Tina added, trying to turn her outburst into a small joke. It didn’t work, so she handed Jan the package in her hands instead. “Here are the feeders you wanted. Chloe told Peter to give them to me to give to you.”

“Thank you,” Jan said as she opened the bag and took out a tissue-wrapped package. “I’ve been meaning to stop by his nursery, and this saves me a trip.”

She seemed so relieved that Tina felt a bit sorry for the way she had complained to Peter about her lack of privacy. Maybe she had made a bigger deal about the brief relay of information than had been warranted. Still, her every move seemed monitored by the quickly formed group of friends. She had expected more anonymity in Spokane than she had found.

“Dad’s always been interested in birds,” Jan continued. “I thought he’d like to see these in the tree outside his window. Oh, this is lovely.”

Two of the feeders were standard tube feeders, but the one Jan held was a delicate blown-glass bulb with tiny red perches attached to the bottom.

“Another of Peter’s personal favorite things,” Tina said, smiling at the memory of him gushing about the local artist’s work. “Although I suspect anything made or grown in a twenty-mile radius of Spokane qualifies for the honor. It’s for hummingbirds.”

“What do I owe you?”

“Nothing. They’re a gift from Peter.”
Because he’s trying to get in your friend’s pants.
Tina almost spoke the words out loud, but she had a feeling Peter would have made the same gesture even if he had never met Chloe.

“He’s very nice,” Jan said, holding the glass feeder so it caught the sunlight streaming through the front window. “You’re lucky to have an extended family like you do. I know your relationship might be strained, but still…at least you’re all making an effort.”

Jan’s words echoed the guilt-ridden thoughts Tina had been fighting since seeing Uncle Nick again. But it had been too long, and the issues were too complex. She couldn’t just forget the years when her only family, her whole world, had been contained in the small apartment she’d shared with her mother. “I’m here to pad my portfolio and fulfill a family obligation. Not to make amends. Sure, Peter’s a nice guy, but once I finish this project I’m out of here.”

Jan looked about to say something more, but Tina stopped her. “We should get to work. Where are your dad’s photos?”

Jan hesitated, but let the matter drop. “In the bedroom closet.”

Tina trailed after her down the short hallway. She understood Jan might be feeling lonely right now, without anyone to share the responsibility of looking after her father, but Tina had been in the same situation once. And she had quietly dealt with it on her own, not asking for help until it was desperately needed. And definitely not prying into anyone else’s personal family business. Jan was gorgeous and had flashes of humor and lightness, but Tina’s first instincts about her had been correct. Tina’s memories were already teasing her with guilt, and she didn’t care to add Jan’s sanctimonious voice to the mix.

Jan stopped in the doorway. “You haven’t unpacked yet. Are you planning to live out of your suitcases for three months?”

Tina had been in the apartment since Monday, but she hadn’t been able to make herself unpack. To put her clothes in the dresser and make her decision to stay final. She had hung up a couple of her nicer outfits, but everything else was crammed haphazardly in her bags and stacked in the corner of the room. And she was tired of Jan’s preachy ways.

“I’m still not sure how long I’m staying. If I can get through my obligations sooner than expected, I’ll go home. Besides,” she added with a half smile as she stepped closer to Jan, “I don’t want to give any
houseguests
the wrong idea. That I’m here to stay. I’m sure you understand what I’m saying.”

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