Authors: Janice Graham
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Women's Fiction, #Contemporary Women, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Contemporary Fiction
Raised in the Flint Hills of Kansas, Sarah Bryden has always dreamed of other places, of going to school and nurturing her talent for landscape painting. But a family tragedy brings her back to the town of Bazaar, to a life of waiting tables and hiding her dreams.
When Sarah meets John and Susan Wilde, her life begins to change. She feels an instant bond with the Wildes' newly adopted son--and forms a deep friendship with John, a brilliant professor who seems as out of place as she does. But the closeness these kindred souls share is more than a friendship. It is blossoming into something more--something that threatens John's marriage and Sarah's sense of right and wrong.
It is a passion driven by the forces of providence, one that will be played out against the wild beauty of the Flint Hills, as powerful as nature itself...
A Jove Book / published by arrangement with G. P. Putnam's Sons
G. P. Putnam's Sons hardcover edition / October 2001 Jove edition / December 2002
Copyright © 2001 by Janice Graham
G. P. Putnam's Sons,
a division of Penguin Putnam Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.
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PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
If our senses were fine enough, we would perceive the slumbering cliff as a dancing chaos.
The Flint Hills have a gift for deceiving the eye. They are all illusion. They appear from a distance as an immense monotonous landscape, flat and barren, begging to be crossed swiftly and then forgotten, thus concealing their mystery and magic, secrets long kept to themselves.
The man who slogged along the shoulder of the county road that evening possessed an inner landscape not all that different from the one around him; but he was not inclined at the moment to make any such comparison. The stinging cold wind assaulted him, flayed the exposed skin of his hands and face with vengeful force. He could not walk upright lest he be knocked off his feet; he made progress only doubled over, where head and shoulders offered no resistance, and at times he found it necessary to advance by walking backward into the wind. With one hand he gripped the collar of his flannel shirt (he wore no overcoat) but it offered little protection, nor did his run-down Nikes make easy progress on the crusted snow under his feet. With his other hand he gripped a red emergency gas can, and his bare knuckles burned from the cold.
His snow-blown hair whipped about his face. It was a wonderful face, a romantic face, quite unlike any to be seen around Chase County. It seemed somehow incongruous with his manner of dress; it begged a more formal, grander attire. It was the kind of face a Hungarian nobleman might own, features from some long since vanished line of counts and bishops. It was not the particular arrangement of features that was in itself so moving, but what animated those features—a kind of heightened spirituality that strangers easily mistook for arrogance. And then there were his eyes, remarkable eyes, an unripe blue that seemed to distance him from the world.
He was concentrated solely on reaching the cluster of houses several miles down the road. He could barely make them out in the dark from where he paused atop one of those gently rounded swells that characterized the land. There was a muted light in the window of a two-story frame house near the road, and this alone gave him a flicker of hope.
Billy Moon caught sight of the man as soon as his truck crested the hill. Billy pumped the brakes lightly, tried to control his skid as best he could, finally coming to a stop a good twenty feet past him. The stranger saw him and broke into a trot.
Billy leaned across the seat and flung open the passenger door. "Get in," he said. "Wherever you're goin', it's on my way."
The man looked up and thanked him as he clambered into the pickup, and Billy was a little blown away by that look, those ice blue eyes in that long, lean face.
Billy plunged the truck into gear and the tall stranger settled the can between his feet.
"That your BMW back down the road?" Billy asked. "Yeah. Gas gauge is broken. I keep meaning to get it fixed."
Billy shook his head. "Runnin' low on gas is risky around these parts. You can go a long stretch without
soul in sight."
The man sat hunched forward, rubbing his hands together briskly under the heater vent. His windblown hair would have lent him a comic air were it not for those intense and anything but comic blue eyes. He gave a sudden, violent shiver and Billy glanced over at him. "Where's your coat?"
"I left it at my lab. I just flew in from California. In the seventies out there." He had a crisp, rapid speech that crackled like cold rain and seemed perfectly in tune with his eyes.
"If you're needing
gas station, you won't find anything open until we get all the way up to the state highway."
"Then do you mind dropping me in Cottonwood Falls?"
"No problem. It's on my way." Billy stole another glance at the man. "You live in the Falls?"
"Just moved there." The stranger smiled and held out
cold hand to shake. "My name's John Wilde."
Of course Billy knew all along who he was, had guessed as much when he saw the California license plates. Billy had heard it all from Sarah, how Susan Wilde was returning to the Falls with her husband and their newly adopted baby, hoping to find life a little simpler out here, and parenting a little easier.
"So you're Susan Blackshere's husband," Billy said.
"Never met your wife," Billy said. "She'd already gone away to school when I moved here. But I know your mother-in-law."
"Yeah. We've heard all about you." Billy gave him a good-natured smile. "Not too many secrets around here."
They were at that moment passing through the town. It consisted of a few simple frame houses, a church, and a farm or two.
"Not much here, is there?" John said.
"Nope. This is Bazaar. Population twelve and dropping. Nobody here under the age of sixty," Billy said with a short laugh. "Except for Sarah, of course."
John repeated her name. "Sarah?" But he wasn't really interested, was just trying to keep up his end of the conversation.
"Yeah," Billy said. "Sarah Bryden. Friend of mine." And he swung his head back in the direction of the house with the lighted window. "That's her place."
John glanced at the house as they sped by. Beyond it stretched monotonous, treeless hills and immense space now shrouded by night. He wondered what kind of person would live in a place like this. People born and raised here, he thought. People without much choice.
They rode in silence for moment, and then Billy said, "I hear you're a scientist. Is that right?"
"I'm a physicist," John replied. "I work with matter in its extreme state. Cold. Extreme cold."
Billy cut in with a dry laugh and said, "Now that would have been an ironic twist of fate, wouldn't it? Freezing to death out here."
But John only smiled and went on talking about how they could freeze gas down to a hundred nano-Kelvins. "That's one billionth of a Kelvin," he said. "Now that's cold." He smiled again. "Of course, we'll never get to absolute zero. We'll always be approaching it, but we'll never get there." He paused to run his long fingers through his hair, now wet from the melted snow, sweeping it back off his forehead.
And then John Wilde went on talking about his work with rubidium gas and magneto-optic traps, and Billy feigned an interest, but his mind was really on Sarah.
It was, of course, the light in Sarah's window that had caught John Wilde's attention, urging him down the road toward Bazaar. The yellow frame house stood near the road, and the dim light shining behind drawn curtains was the only sign of life in this shuttered and drawn little community. Had he been left to trudge onward, he surely would have stopped and knocked upon that door to ask for assistance. It was interesting that Billy Moon descended upon him at that moment, which served only to forestall by a few weeks something inevitable, as if destiny were playing games with itself, when it knew all along how things would end.
There was not much left to recommend the town of Bazaar. It had lost its post office years ago when the postmaster dragged his sweat-stained mattress out onto the railroad tracks behind his clapboard house and lay down on the icy rails in the middle of the night, waiting for the 3:12 to take him away to another life. A few faithful souls still attended the church, though they had no minister, so the ones who gathered brought their own Bible verses to read and recited their own prayers. Blanche Potter, who was ninety-two that year, still rang the bell every Sunday at nine o'clock sharp, although by that time everyone who was going to come was already seated on the worm-eaten pews.
It was not unusual for a light to shine from Sarah's window late into the night. She could often be found sitting where she sat now, on a chair in the corner of her room, a large sketch pad propped on her knees, her hand darting over the paper in brisk strokes, as if it were no more than an extension of her own mind. As Billy Moon's truck sped by on the highway there was emerging upon her paper a scene of marked contrast to the actual landscape that surrounded her: high, craggy pinnacles of rock rising into the air; steep, jagged cliffs falling off into darkness or mist, or was it water? It gave one the impression of a dreamscape rather than something earthly and solid, as if she had seen this land in a vision and was seeking to re-create it. Something in the power and urgency of her pencil strokes suggested the rocks were alive.
Perhaps she heard the truck, because just after its passage she laid down her sketch pad and lifted her shoulders, then let fall a deep, weary sigh. She wore a heavy robe of forest-green, with a wide skirt that swept the floor and hid her bare feet. The sleeves of the robe were wide and loose and splattered with paint, as was the skirt. She settled her sketch pad on the floor and groped for the large tortoiseshell clip on top of her head, releasing it so that her long russet hair cascaded around her closed face like a veil. It was a striking face, perhaps not conventionally pretty, but the kind of face a discerning eye would follow in a crowd—its effect all the more mysterious because it worked on the senses as only beauty does, creating in the beholder an insatiable longing. (Indeed, the circuit preacher who came once a month to Bazaar to lead the tiny congregation in its devotionals was inevitably distracted by it, and he would forget parts of his sermon, so that the service was always shorter than he had anticipated, but no one seemed to care.)
Sarah stood and stretched and glanced casually about the room. Dozens of sketches and watercolors were tacked or taped to her walls in a desultory fashion, and on a pair of rusted metal TV trays set up next to an easel were scattered her painting materials: a daisy-shaped china palette, a peaches-in-syrup tin containing her brushes, two open paint boxes, a magnifying glass, pencils, and erasers. Nothing was calculated to be seen or admired, for no one ever came up here. The room itself was empty of all pretense.
Most startling, however, was the subject matter, for none of the watercolors bore the slightest resemblance to the towering craggy cliffs shown in the drawing she was now locking away in the bottom drawer of an old oak dresser. Many of the paintings were of grasses indigenous to the Hills—switchgrass and sand dropseed, and Japanese brome; others were wildflowers—coneflower and spiderwort, Indian blanket and plains bee balm. Captured here not as seen on the prairie but isolated and observed in great detail, with captivating delicacy and elegance.
In high summer, when the temperature pushed past a hundred and the wind swept like a furnace over the hills, she would rise early and take her truck as far as it would go down Little Bloody Creek road to the point where the road was no longer passable, continuing on into the open prairie, into the deep heart of the Hills where isolation from civilization was complete. Here she would sit, painting from her truck until the heat became unbearable, her long savage hair coiled at the back of her head, her watercolors spread out on the wide seat and a bare foot dangling out the open door, a stalk of butterfly milkweed propped on the dashboard or lashed to the steering wheel.
But during the cold, harsh winters she withdrew indoors and turned her thoughts inward, and saw things she did not want others to see, hiding away her visions in the old oak dresser under lock and key.
She made her way across the room and turned out the light, then passed through to the alcove, treading quietly so as not to awaken her grandparents, who slept just below. The alcove was only slightly warmer than the adjacent room, for she would throw open windows even in winter, a habit her grandmother had attempted in vain to correct over the years.
Sarah did not change out of her robe but crawled between the rumpled sheets, sweeping the long skirt around her, settling into its warmth like a cocoon and falling instantly asleep.