The Guests on South Battery (29 page)

BOOK: The Guests on South Battery
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“Do you really think she would?” Nola asked. “It seems to me that she's a lot more accepting of all the weird stuff that goes on around you than the average person.”

I stared at her, remembering Jack and me having this same conversation before agreeing that it was probably because of Jayne's background
in foster care, when she'd learned that she couldn't afford to be surprised or disappointed or shocked or risk being labeled a “bad fit.” It was what made her such a good nanny. She knew how to absorb the rhythms of a family in a short amount of time, to assimilate and blend seamlessly into family life. At least that was what Jack had said. I'd been so busy trying to hide the weird stuff from her that I'd simply assumed I was doing a good job.

“I don't know,” I said. “But I'm not willing to rock the boat and upset her. If I can just figure out how to get rid of the ghosts in her new house, she doesn't need to know anything.”

Nola stared at me skeptically. I was saved from having to say more by my phone ringing the familiar tone of “Dancing Queen.” I pulled my phone from my pocket and looked at the screen. “It's your dad.” I thrust the bag at her. “Put these in a closet or something until I can explain to Jayne what they are. I'm going to take this.”

She took the bag and gave me a thumbs-up before heading to her room with the two puppies at her heel, General Lee at mine.

“Hello?” I said, leaning against my closed bedroom door.

“Hey, sexy.” Jack's voice on the phone always did shocking things to my system, but tonight the effect seemed amplified, most likely because of his absence and me missing him so much.

“I miss you,” I said, trying not to sound too pathetic.

“Not as much as I miss you. How are Nola and the twins?”

“We're all good.” I made the snap decision not to tell him about that morning's episode. It would just make him worry, and there wasn't anything he could do about it anyway. “Just missing you. The whole time I was trying to feed Sarah in her high chair, she kept glancing over at the kitchen door as if expecting you to walk through it.” I stopped, recalling my earlier conversation with Nola and realizing that there might actually have been other reasons for her to be looking at the back door. “I can't wait for you to get home.” I sounded pathetic but didn't care. I
did
miss him. It was hard to believe that I'd been single for the first forty years of my life, living on my own, until Jack Trenholm came into my life and flipped it on its back. Literally.

There was a pause. “Actually, that's why I'm calling. I need to spend another night here before I head back.”

I didn't say anything, afraid I'd start crying and embarrass myself.

“Every lead was turning into a dead end and I was thinking I'd probably come back a day early. I was headed out of town when I stopped at the public library that contains the historic archives from the whole county, and also includes the archives of the flooded town.”

I could hear the excitement in his voice, so I focused on that instead of my own disappointment. “And what did you find?”

“Well, I was talking to the archivist, a lovely woman named Mabel, and when I told her I was looking for information on the Pinckney family and their house on Lake Jasper, she got all excited. Her older sister was the housekeeper—the one mentioned in Rosalind's letter—at the lake house. Her husband, now deceased, was the caretaker. Her name is Rena Olsen, and Mabel gave me her phone number, so I called her and she told me to come tomorrow. She's in an assisted-living facility in Birmingham, so it's a bit of a drive, but I have a feeling it would be worth it. She said she's been wanting to tell her stories for a long time—just waiting for someone to ask, I guess. She said she took a toaster and a few other items from the house before it was flooded, and feels guilty about it. She probably wants absolution or something. I should find out more tomorrow.”

I couldn't share his enthusiasm, as it seemed the old woman was simply looking for someone to talk to. But this was his job, this researching of every avenue even when it might terminate in a dead end. And even when I believed it would be a waste of time. “That's wonderful, Jack. Maybe you can ask her if the city of Miami means anything.” I gave him a brief account of Hasell's broken snow globes and Sarah's odd behavior.

“Sounds like an obscure lead, but I hate to leave any stone unturned. I'll definitely ask her. And when I'm done with the interview, I'll head home.”

“Will you call me as soon as you're done?” I hated the neediness in my voice, but I was too tired to disguise it.

“Of course. But only if you keep my side of the bed warm for me.”

“You know I will. Good night, Jack.”

“Good night, Mellie.”

“I love you,” I said before realizing that he'd already ended the call.

I dropped my phone on top of the bedside table, then leaned against the side of the tall bed to stroke General Lee's ears while I tried to get a handle on my emotions. He rolled over on his back so I could give his undercarriage a good scratch that somehow made both of us feel a little better.

After a few moments I straightened and was headed toward my closet when I heard a strange sound from behind me. I looked back at General Lee, who was now sound asleep with all four paws in the air, but I was fairly certain what I'd heard hadn't been a dog snore. My gaze scanned the room until it came to rest on the dresser across from the bed, where I'd placed my three extra alarm clocks. I held my breath—but not because all the clocks still showed ten minutes after four despite my having changed them multiple times. Someone had nudged the framed photo of Button and Sumter between them, the reflection from the glass whitewashing the picture and replacing it with a long sliver of light that closely resembled a finger.

“Leave me alone,” I said, too exhausted to face one more thing. I turned back around and was almost at my closet door when I felt more than heard the frame whip the air behind me and smack the far wall before landing with a soft thud onto the rug.

I continued walking, quickly closing the closet door behind me, happy to pretend that nothing had happened.

CHAPTER 27

I
sat on the piazza trying to get a little paperwork done and pretending I was taking advantage of the gorgeous weather instead of pathetically waiting outside to be the first person aware of Jack's return. I was in one of Mr. Vanderhorst's rocking chairs, still trying to understand how people could just sit and stare out at the world. Every once in a while I caught myself doing that, admiring the hanging baskets of garish purple and red blooms that my father had placed at intervals on the piazza, and listening to the fountain that unfortunately made me need to use the restroom. I'd quickly look down at my papers to remind myself that I couldn't afford to just sit on my porch and watch the world go by.

The front door opened behind me and Jayne joined me. “Melanie—do you have a moment?”

“Sure,” I said, feeling a fissure of apprehension as I indicated the rocking chair next to me. She'd lasted a week longer than all the previous nannies combined and I'd already made the decision that I wasn't going to give her up easily. I was already preparing a truce about the matching outfits and labeling gun, in addition to a sizable raise if only she would keep her letter of resignation that I was sure was forthcoming.
“JJ and Sarah are down for their naps, so I figured I'd try a recipe for their dinner from the baby food cookbook Sophie gave you.”

“Good,” I said, biting my tongue before I could remind her that they sold baby food already prepared at the grocery store. She looked uncomfortable and I knew she had more to say. I braced myself, my knees pressed together and my hands gripping the arms of the rocker while I tried to smile.

“But first I wanted to ask you about this.” She held up the saltshaker that we'd taken from the Pinckney house that I'd last seen on Jack's desk.

I sat up. “Oh, Jack was just borrowing it. For visuals. I thought he'd asked your permission to take it from the house.”

A small furrow formed over her nose. “No—I mean, yes, he did. I just wanted to know why it was on my bedside table this morning.”

“It was?” I asked.

She looked confused. “Yes—I'm sure it wasn't there last night, but it was there when I woke up, and I was wondering if maybe you'd put it there.”

“Why would you think I did it?”

Jayne shrugged. “I have no idea. I thought maybe because it had the year I was born on it, you might have thought I'd want it as a souvenir. But as I told Jack, he can keep it.” She held it up so I could clearly read the date.
May 30, 1984.

I shook my head. “Wasn't me. Maybe Nola had it in her hand when she went into your room to rescue one of the puppies and accidentally left it behind. They seem to like it in there. We probably need to get the latch fixed, because they have no problem pushing open your door.”

“Probably,” she said. “I can take care of that—I'm pretty handy.” She stood. “I guess I'll just go put this back on Jack's desk. And please don't bother Nola about this. It's an easy thing to forget. I swear those puppies are baby ninjas. I wish I had just a fraction of their energy.”

“Me, too.” I looked at her placid face, and heard Jack's words in my head.
“She's used to fitting in and not making a stir. To accepting the unacceptable. Because that's what made the difference between staying with a family and being asked to go.”

Her smile broadened as she looked over my head to the street. “Better go put it back now—looks like Jack's home.”

She went inside as I carefully placed my papers in a neat stack by the chair and stood, smoothing my hair and clothes. I opened the piazza door and was waiting on the steps as he approached, wondering what it was that was different about him. For once I wished I were wearing my glasses so I could read his expression instead of being left to wonder why his footsteps seemed to slow when he spotted me.

“Mellie,” he said, sounding more surprised than excited. He came up the steps to stand beside me, dropping his bag on the floor and sweeping me up in a tight embrace. “I missed you so much,” he said in my hair, almost making me forget the moment of worry I'd felt just seconds before.

“Me, too,” I said, relaxing into his arms and allowing the relief of him being back home to sweep through me.

He pulled back and looked at me, and I saw lines under his eyes I hadn't noticed before. “You feeling all right?” I asked.

“Just tired. It's been a long few days.”

“It has. Did you find out anything new from the housekeeper?”

He embraced me again and I had the stray thought that he did it to avoid meeting my eyes. “A little bit. She wanted to give Jayne the toaster and chair she took from the Pinckneys' house after they abandoned it because she still feels guilty. I did my best to set her mind to rest. And no, Miami meant nothing to her.”

I pulled back to look into his eyes, but he was already reaching for his bag. “I'll tell you all about it later. But first I really need a long, hot shower and something to eat.”

I watched him head toward the front door and then pause. “Is Jayne home?”

“Yes. Why?”

Jack smiled. “Because I wanted to know if it was safe to walk around naked after my shower. I don't want to scare her.”

He bent down to give me one of his mind-emptying kisses that left me with a stupid smile on my face and only a vague memory of what
we'd been talking about. I was still smiling as he made his way into the house, the door shutting behind him, my smile doing nothing to convince me that there wasn't something Jack wasn't telling me.

I sat in between my mother and Jayne at one of the makeup counters at Cos Bar on King Street, trying on makeup for the book-launch party the following evening. Jayne and I were, anyway. My mother was just trying on makeup for fun, much to the joy of the employee working with us. Ginette's flawless skin was the perfect canvas for makeup, and her years as an opera singer had taught her not to be afraid of looking dramatic—something she was trying to share with Jayne and me with mixed results.

I hadn't gone with my mother and Jayne to look for a dress, if only to prove that I wasn't petty or jealous and didn't care if they selected a dress that was prettier than mine. Jayne was the nanny and was going with Thomas Riley as her date. They actually made a very cute couple, and I thought they might even have a future together if Jayne could just learn to speak like a normal person when she was with him.

I hadn't seen her dress, but I was sure it was lovely, since my mother had helped pick it out, which, if I was forced to admit, hurt a little. Maybe not having had a mother for most of my life made me feel a little possessive. Jayne had grown up without any parents, but at least she hadn't known what she was missing. I had, and had known the pain of it being snatched away from me.

It was these guilty thoughts that made me agree to invite Jayne to pick out makeup for the big night, despite my protests that I shouldn't wear anything except a thick green moisturizing mask to go with my hair that I was planning to wear in pink curlers.

“All three of you have the most amazing eyelashes,” Sultana, the beautiful woman with perfect skin and luminous eyes on the other side of the counter, said as she leaned in again with a mascara wand. “This one is a little more expensive, but it will give you the dramatic look you want with your smoky eye.”

“A smoky eye? Won't that make them water?” Jayne asked. I shot her a look to see if she was serious. Apparently, she was.

“Let me show you,” my mother said, picking up the sample of eye shadows that Sultana had been playing with. With expert precision, Ginette began covering Jayne's eyelids with color. “We're so lucky to all have deep-set eyes—it makes eye shadow application so much easier and so much fun. We can do tons of things that other girls can't because we have a much larger area to work with.”

Sultana handed her a wand of black liquid liner and I watched as my mother perfected a cat's-eye on Jayne. Ginette picked up a hand mirror and showed her. “See? You almost look like someone else entirely—which is sort of the point of dressing up and going to a party, isn't it? It's like preparing for your part and your moment onstage.”

She smiled at Jayne, but there was something in her expression as she regarded the younger woman. “What's your natural hair color, Jayne?”

“Dark brown,” Jayne said with a little hesitation. She looked around for something to compare it to, finally settling on my hair. “Like Melanie's—but maybe a bit darker.”

“Melanie's natural color is actually a little darker—she colors it now to hide the gray that's started to come through,” my mother said matter-of-factly.

Sultana thrust a lipstick into my hands either to distract me or keep my hands occupied so they wouldn't do any damage. “Try this,” she said. “It was all the rage at Charleston Fashion Week. It will look
gorgeous
on you.”

As I applied the lipstick, my mother continued. “You look good as a blonde, Jayne, but I think you'd look stunning as a brunette. Don't you think, Mellie?”

“Uh-huh,” I said, grateful for the lipstick that prevented me from forming full words. Otherwise I'd just ask my mother to shout to the world that her daughter was old and gray and that the nanny would outshine her if she'd color her hair back to brown. I closed my eyes, much to Sultana's protests that I would mess up my mascara. I just
couldn't face myself in the mirror. Jayne might talk like a teenager at times, but I certainly had the inner teenage voice down pat.

Sultana took the opportunity while my eyes were closed to grab a tweezer and begin plucking at errant eyebrow hairs. “You look like a woolly mammoth,” she said. “Let me clean these up for you.”

I sighed, resigned to my just punishment for my earlier thoughts.

“Melanie?” Jayne asked.

I braced myself, wondering if she wanted to borrow a pair of shoes—we'd recently discovered that we wore the same size. “Yes?”

“I was wondering—did you hide one of Sarah's toys in that hall chest upstairs? She keeps crawling toward it and banging on the bottom drawer. I didn't want to pry, so I didn't look, but she certainly seems determined to get inside.”

“Ouch,” I said as Sultana ripped out a reluctant eyebrow hair and apparently a chunk of skin, judging by how much it hurt. I'd completely forgotten about the broken snow globes, or Nola telling me where she'd put them until I could tell Jayne. “Those are the remains of seven snow globes from the Pinckney house. They got broken, but Sophie was reluctant to throw them out, so I brought the bag home. Sarah saw them and was pretty fascinated, so I asked Nola to hide them until I could ask you what you wanted to do with them. Sarah must have seen her do it.”

“Well, that explains it,” Jayne said. “If it's all right with you, I'll take the bag out and show Sarah the empty drawer. Maybe she'll forget about it.”

Ginette laughed. “Not likely—Sarah's pretty stubborn. She gets it from her mother. She's small and cute, but she's like a pit bull with a bone when she gets it in her head that she wants something.”

I opened my eyes to find both Sultana and my mother studying my face. “Much better,” Ginette said, nodding approvingly, then slid her credit card across the counter. “Go ahead and wrap all this up—my treat.”

Despite our protests, Ginette insisted (obviously Sarah's genetic disposition toward stubbornness ran deeper than just one generation) and Sultana began sorting our selections to ring up.

Jayne walked behind the counter to the shelves of perfume and picked one up to sniff. “I'm wondering if there's a way she can play with the snow globes that might be safe. I mean, I wouldn't let her handle them or put them in her mouth, but maybe some kind of game I can make up that might make her happy?”

I considered for a moment. “Well, she did show a partiality toward the Miami one—was really vocal about that one being ‘the one.' For what, I have no idea, but as soon as I showed that one to her, she was fine and then went to sleep. If you want to whip them out of the bag and lay them on a table for her to let you know when you get it right, go right ahead.” I paused. “Just don't leave them in their room when you're done. I wouldn't want them to get hold of one of them, just in case there's still broken glass.”

“All right.” A frown crossed her brow. “How did they get broken?”

I cleared my throat while my mother unscrewed the lid of a face cream and took her time smelling it. “I'm not really sure. There's so much construction going on, and so many workmen. I asked Amelia if they might be worth anything, and she said no, so at least there's no restitution involved.”

“Not that I'd make anybody pay for them anyway, since it's my fault they got broken,” Jayne admitted. “I should have had them moved out of the house long before they started all the restoration work. It's just . . . I don't know. I don't feel as if the house is mine, and I'm finding it really difficult to make these decisions because I still think of the house and everything in it as belonging to Button Pinckney.”

BOOK: The Guests on South Battery
13.81Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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