Authors: Susan McBride
Yes, it was miserably cold, but the landscape was something special to see, even at night; an undulating palette of dark and light, hills and valleys. It felt a million miles away from the city, a million miles away from the life she'd built for herself and was not so sure she wanted anymore.
“It'd be a great setting for fund-raisers with foodies,” Hunter suggested. “Those types love pairing ice wine with dessert.”
“That would work,” she said, her teeth chattering.
When she faced him again, he had the most gratified look on his face.
“I feel soâ”
she was going to say.
“Glacial?” he remarked and gave her a friendly nudge. “Then you'd better get moving. The more you stand still, the colder you'll get.”
He turned around to the others, shouting, “Hey, guys, this is Antonia Ashton, she's Miss Evie's daughter, and she's come to help us out tonight. So watch your mouths, all right? There's a lady present.”
Toni heard laughter and a few half-hearted cheers, along with a “thanks” and
or two. She blushed, smiling sheepishly and feeling more than a little disingenuous.
“So what do I do?” she asked Hunter, shifting from one foot to the other to keep her blood circulating. “It's not getting any warmer out here so let's get cracking.”
“Then crack we shall.” Hunter caught her elbow, hanging on firmly, all too eager to show her the ropes. “Okay, see how we've got the baskets lined up, if you just take care of the vines on either side, and keep going down the row until the baskets are full, maybe we can get half the grapes harvested and pressed by dawn.”
Oh, God, what had she gotten herself into?
Hunter chuckled as she groaned; but the knot in her chest loosened and lightness replaced it. She tipped her head up to the night and smiled, blinking at the falling snow. A long-neglected childlike sense of abandon shot through her veins like adrenaline.
The first few minutes while Hunter showed her the ropes, she thought she'd turn as pale as the ice on the vines. But once she understood what to do and got in the groove, she felt her heart pumping and she did warm up a little.
“Ninety-nine clusters of grapes on the vine, ninety-nine clusters of grapes,” she sang into her scarf, distracting herself from the cold as she picked. The grapes snapped off the vines easily enough; the icy fruit heavy in her hand, desperate to be plucked.
The men on the row with her were mostly quiet, quickly going about their business, far faster than she. Occasionally they called out to one another, chattering briefly. Almost always, laughter followed.
When it seemed that her fingers got too stiff to pluck another bunch, Hunter appeared out of nowhere, putting his hand on her shoulder and urging her to go inside for a while. Every time she didâand drank enough hot coffee to unthaw her toesâshe realized Hunter hardly took a break. When he did, it was mostly to check on his men, to make sure they were all right.
Something happened as she watched him, the way he talked to the others, smiling, encouraging or patting a back, shaking his head as they chattered. The men looked up to him, basked in his approval. And she found herself thinking,
Dad would have liked him
Which scared the crap out of her.
She looked over her mug and found Hunter's eyes on her. How she didn't spill the rest of her coffee down her front, she wasn't sure.
“Hey, Toni! You're looking kind of numb. Have you had enough?” he asked, approaching as she pulled on her gloves and hood to head back outside.
As tired as she was, as much as she would have loved to drive home to the Victorian and slide beneath the thick bedspread, she couldn't bail. It went way beyond not wanting to seem weak in Hunter's eyes; she needed to do it for Evie and her dad, maybe even for herself. She might have ignored the vineyard for twenty-five years, but it was a part of her, a piece of her past just like all those photographs.
“Nope, I'm fine,” she assured him, and he walked back outside with her.
He stayed to help her pick, working side by side, mostly saying nothing, their shoulders quietly brushing. The snow still drifted down lightly, settling over the brown stalks of vine, catching on Toni's eyelashes.
By the time they'd reached the end of the row, the clouds blew over, although Toni hardly realized it until Hunter caught her hand and said, “Hey, would you look at that.”
The snow had stopped falling, and Hunter was staring up. Behind the scudding clouds, the sky was clear and black as pitch. So many stars twinkled that Toni could hardly begin to count them, and the moon was so full it seemed as big as an orange. Like she could reach out and grab it if her fingers weren't frozen stiff.
“You don't see stuff like that in the city every day,” he remarked, and Toni murmured, “No, you don't.”
In fact, she hardly ever saw stars at all, maybe because she rarely took the time to stop and look.
y mother had often remarked upon how patient I was compared to the frenzy that was Anna. Even as a toddler, I could sit still in church without fidgeting. I never excused myself from the dinner table until everyone else was done. On Christmas morning I would lie quietly in bed until dawn, the covers drawn to my chin, not moving an inch until our parents had gotten up, tired of Anna waking them every hour. But, somehow, as I waited on the arrival of Antonia, the time could not pass quickly enough.
If I had envisioned that I would have Anna all to myself during her pregnancy, I couldn't have been further off. I saw her rarely, once a week if I was lucky. It was far from the cozy arrangement I'd dreamt of, with Anna staying in the cottage and our lives becoming entangled again. But we weren't children anymore, forced to share the same surroundings, and she had clearly made her choice.
Mosquito Island sat halfway across the river, so close I could've swum thereâand had at least once. Still it felt a million miles apart, like my sister was a princess in a castle surrounded by a moat, and I had to patiently stand by until she let down the drawbridge.
The first time Bridget had met me at their boat slip to take me over, it was the week after Anna had appeared on our porch. And it was well after dark. Jon had driven me and planned to wait in the car till I returned as Anna had specifically requested that I go alone.
“It's better this way,” Bridget had insisted, “so no one can see what we're up to.” I couldn't help but figure that “no one” meant Franklin Evans in particular.
It made me feel almost criminal, skimming across the river in the dim of night, surrounded by an unseen chorus of frogs, cicadas, and crickets. Who would have questioned my visiting the Dittmers in the daylight when they had worked so many years for my family? I had a feeling it was Anna's doing, just to keep control. She always liked to be in charge, to make the rules, even when it was childhood games.
I was nervous just the same. I had never been to Ingrid and Bridget's home before, not in my entire life. Although I had come close when I was ten. I'd ridden along with my father to retrieve them so they could attend Anna's seventh birthday party (at Anna's insistence). Their battered station wagon had broken down, and Daddy had been getting it fixed for them.
As soon as we'd pulled into the graveled spot above their slip, I'd jumped out of the sedan and raised my arms to the sky, exhilarated by the wind coming off the river that made the trees and tall grass bob and weave. When I'd put a hand over my eyes to squint at the brown of the Mississippi, I'd spied their tiny boat drawing nearer, and I soon heard the purr of its motor. For a while, Ingrid and her daughter had appeared to be the size of dolls.
“How do they live over there all alone?” I had asked as my father came out of the car to stand beside me.
“Very simply,” he'd replied and put a hand on my shoulder. “People don't need much to survive but food and water and fire. Ingrid doesn't want jewelry or gowns or anything fussy. She'd rather have her independence.”
No jewelry or gowns or anything fussy. That didn't sound like any female I'd ever met.
“But do they have water to drink?” I had wondered aloud because I couldn't imagine anyone imbibing the dirty froth of the Mississippi. It seemed a vile brew. Even the river catfish smelled funny until they were battered and cooked.
“They have a well on the island behind their house and a garden, too,” Daddy had explained.
“What about lights? Do they have electricity? Or do they read by candles?”
“They have a limited power supply,” he'd said, his hands in his trouser pockets.
His brow had furrowed as he'd watched the boat approach, and Ingrid and Bridget had gotten bigger and bigger until they were the size of humans. “But I guess they might read by candlelight if they should want to.”
“You know so much about them.” I had turned away from the water to look at him. “Have you been to Ingrid's house then?”
He'd crouched beside me so that I was taller than he, and he'd held both my hands for the briefest of moments. “You know that Bridget has no father, right?”
I had nodded solemnly. All of Blue Hills knew it.
“He died before she even got to meet him,” Daddy had told me, although I already knew that, too. “So I have helped them when I can because they are alone.”
“Like Mother helps the orphans by knitting caps for them with her church ladies,” I had suggested.
He'd smiled, amused by the comment. “I guess it's a bit like that, yes.” Then he'd ruffled my hair and stood.
“Here they are!” I'd called out as the motor grew louder and sputtered out.
Bridget had waved as they coasted toward the dock to tie it up.
“Back you go into the car, String Bean,” Daddy had instructed, giving my rear end a pat, and that, as they say, was that.
Daddy had been right about Ingrid and Bridget living simply. There wasn't much to their house-on-stilts. It was little more than three rooms and a porch set twenty feet above the bank so that in the spring, when the river rose, the high waters might strand them but likely wouldn't flood them out. They had no telephone service or direct mail delivery, but Jon and I had neither at the cottage and had to go up the road to the Victorian for both. A Franklin stove provided heat in the winter and propane powered a small refrigerator, water heater, and burners for cooking. They had no television set or stereo, although Ingrid had plenty of books on hand, mostly romance novels and nonfiction about herbs and plants.
My initial visit had been all too brief, with my sister complaining of nausea so bad that every odor she breathed made her want to retch. Ingrid made her tea with ginger root, which Anna obediently drank. “Sit with me, please,” she begged Bridget's mother, and Ingrid sat down with her and stroked her hair, Anna's head in her lap. It was so cozy a scene that I felt like an intruder, much as I had when Ingrid would bring Bridget to play with Anna when we were kids.
By the next visit, her nausea had abated, and she requested I bring her chocolates and watermelon, which I did, along with a thermos of cold lemonade.
Even still, Anna spent most of our brief time together complaining. “I don't see why you want to come anyway,” she grumbled and took a half-hearted bite of a caramel. “It's so hot I hardly move. All I do is eat and sleep. I'm less human than a pig, wallowing in my own sweat.”
“You don't have to entertain me,” I assured her. “It's enough just to sit with you and watch how Antonia grows.”
My sister set aside the box of Whitman's and clasped her arms around her swollen belly, screwing up her face. “Oh, she's growing all right, like a goddamned weed.”
Once her smile had gone, it did not reappear, at least not that day and only rarely in my visits thereafter. In her gloomy fits, she would ignore me, and I would depart unhappily, waiting for the next week when I could return, hopefully with her in better spirits.
Every trip across the river to the house-on-stilts those summer months meant an opportunity to figure out who Anna had become, because she wasn't the same vibrant girl who'd left Blue Hills. She'd become increasingly moody and sharp-tongued, scowling more often than she laughed. Oh, there were moments when the familiar Annabelle appeared, dimpled and jesting, as lighthearted as she'd ever been; but she could withdraw at the drop of a hat. I had to be careful what I talked to her about, as she could be set off so easily. So we spoke of Charlotte and Joseph, Ingrid and Bridget, and specific memories that struck us both as happy. We avoided things that caused discord between us, like any details of her time awayâwhich she still refused to shareâwhat had happened to our mother, and, more often than not, Daddy.
On one particularly humid evening in late July, we slouched side by side on the brown-and-orange daybed that felt slightly damp. The dank smell of the river filled my nose and the mosquitoes buzzed at my ears despite my swatting at them.
“How did it feel for you when you were pregnant?” Anna asked me. “Did you love the child the instant you knew?”
I wasn't sure at first how to answer except to say, “It was beyond love.” How did one describe sensations that were miles above happy? “Jon and I were over the moon.”
“Do you feel the same about Antonia?” she asked quietly. “Do you love her already even though she's not inside you?”
I turned toward her, nodding. “Yes, sweetie, I do.”
“When she is older, if I'm gone, will you tell her about me?” The blue of her eyes looked dark and turbulent, and I knew one of her moods was sweeping over her again, fast as lightning. “Or will you pretend I don't exist?”
“Why would you say that?” The things that came out of her mouth! “Do you want her to know you, Annabelle?” I asked, because I hadn't even thought about it. A panic rose inside me though I didn't dare show it. “Will you come back to see her once you're traveling again?”
“I haven't decided yet,” she admitted with a frown and stared down at her growing belly. “My God, I look like I swallowed a barn. All I dream about is getting this over with so I can see my toes again.”
“You look beautiful,” I said and reached for her chin, catching my thumb beneath it. “In fact, I hope she looks like you. Her life will be so much easier if she's pretty.”
“Pretty?” Anna made a noise of disgust and pulled apart from me. “I'd rather she have your brains because there's always someone prettier.”
“She will be both,” I said, although I didn't care if Antonia grew up plain and dumb as a fence post. I would love her still.
“Beauty fades far too fast, and once it does, you have nothing,” Anna murmured and glanced around us as though she heard a noise, though Bridget and Ingrid had left us alone.
“You always have what's inside you,” I told her, watching as her expression shifted yet again. I saw her cheeks flush and a wicked smile take shape on her lips.
“Don't be stupid, Evelyn Alice. No man cares what's on the inside of a woman,” she said brusquely. “Take Ingrid, for example. She was quite the looker in her day. There are pictures in the bedroom. Would you like to see?”
“No.” I caught her arm. “I don't care what Ingrid used to be.”
“She had long wavy hair, luminous eyes, and a figure worthy of stares.”
“Our Ingrid?” I repeated, because the mousy woman with the flat gray braid and weathered skin appeared far older than her years, as if raising a child alone and taking care of other people had steadily worn her down.
“Did you ever wonder why Daddy hired her?”
“Because she was a woman alone with a child, and he wanted to help her,” I replied, which was the truth as I knew it. “She was a war widow.”
“Was she?” Anna's slim eyebrows peaked. “Or was that a story she made up so the narrow minds in Blue Hills wouldn't judge her?”
I shrugged. “That's her secret to keep.”
“And this is ours, right, Evie?”
Despite the soft glow of the porch lightâa single bulb covered by a round paper shadeâI could see the play of emotions on her face, the flux of happy and sad. It was like she had trouble finding the balance between them.
I smiled at her and said, “Yes, it's our secret.”
Her face softened, and she took my hand, hanging on to it. “Daddy will not control Antonia. You won't let him, will you, Evelyn?” she asked. “She'll live the life she wants to live and marry the one she's meant to marry.”
Where was this coming from?
“Of course she will,” I told her.
“If he knew she was mine, he would disown her, too.” She clutched my hand more tightly. “He isn't suspicious? He doesn't doubt you?”
“He has no reason to doubt me,” I assured her. Everything was going smoothly.
Daddy believed all the lies: about the St. Louis doctor, my bed rest, my seclusion. And when I did see him, Jon was by my side, protective of my padded belly. “All is well.”
She nodded, letting go.
I pressed my lips together, trying to still the fast beat of my heart. I could feel Anna's intensity, and it scared me a little more each time I was with her.
She bent her head, planting a soft kiss on my palm, made red by her fingers. “You were always so good,” she murmured. “Sweet, sweet Evie, never causing a moment of worry for anyone.”
My mother had said something so like that at the courthouse on the day I'd married Jon, and it unsettled me to hear those words coming now from Anna.
If I was so good, why did I wish more every day that the baby would come soon and Anna would go back to her gypsy life so I could move on with mine?
That night when I left my sister, I lay in bed, listening to Jonathan's even breathing and staring into the dark as my deepest fear surfaced: that Annabelle would change her mind. That she would go back on her word. That the moment Antonia was born, she would decide not to give her up.
For the next few mornings, I stood at the closet door, and the black dress tempted me. How I longed to wear it and see what the future held!
But I could never bring myself to do it. I'd get as far as fetching the hatbox from the shelf and setting it down on the bed before I'd put it back again. I was too afraid of what it might show me, and I wasn't sure how I could cope if I were to lose another child.
I was equally afraid of what might happen if Anna got ahold of the dress again.
What if it gave her another vision, one that caused her to disappear again, this time with Antonia in tow?
That niggling doubt left a persistent fear in my belly, and I found myself making excuses
to see my sister. I put it off several weeks until Bridget came by the cottage herself to see what was wrong. When she realized I was not illâmerely anxious enough to have chewed my nails to the quickâshe asked if I would please come across the river.