| Magnolia Sky |
By Susan Crandall
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The freezing February rain beat steadily on the roof of Luke Boudreau's old Taurus. Through the water-spotted glass, he watched the winter-stripped trees mimic his own unsettled insides as they jerked and twisted in the gusty wind. He hunched a little deeper into his jacket collar and rubbed his chilled fingers against his thighs. Mississippi was the South, for God's sake, the Magnolia State. How could it be so damn cold?
He'd been parked here on this levee, watching the storm punish a broad, sweeping bend in the Tallahatchie River for the past hour. The rain slanted in silvery sheets. The clouds hung so low and gray that, despite the fact it was mid-morning, an artificial twilight encompassed Luke's solitary torment.
The moment he'd been both dreading and anticipating for the past five months had come. In all that time, he'd debated long and hard about what he would say, yet had found no words to convey his regret.
This morning he'd changed his clothes between civilian and army uniform three times before leaving his motel in black pants, a sport coat and tie-funeral clothes. He came to Mississippi as a man, not a soldier. Still, he felt as unprepared as if he'd come straight from the battlefield to speak to the mother of the man who shouldn't have died.
Died. He could think of no four letters more powerful, more cutting, more capable of drawing raw emotion to the surface, like blood in a fresh wound. Even so, that word was far from adequate to express what had happened to Calvin Abbott. Abbott had been obliterated. But no one outside his own team would ever know the reality of it.
Each and every time Luke closed his eyes to sleep, he heard the shouts, the garbled static of his communications earpiece, the steady whomp-whomp of the helicopter blades, the explosions, the automatic rifle fire, his own ragged breathing-Abbott yelling his name. It was Luke's own private hell, one he couldn't share, even with his fellow Rangers.
Occasionally, a moment in his life allowed the memory to sag to the rear of his mind. But quickly his own body brought it back to the forefront. His fingertips still tingled; every step was marked by a stiff and painful right knee. Today's weather brought a sharp and steady stabbing in his back.
At least he could feel. He reminded himself of that every day.
He put the car in drive and bounced along the gravel levee road, each rut and pothole sending a white-hot shaft of pain up through his shoulder blades.
His white-knuckled grip on the steering wheel loosened when he reached the two-lane blacktop that led to Grover. It was odd, he noticed, the way asphalt weathered to an orangish pink here, instead of bleached gray.
Heavy vegetation pressed close to the roadside, making some stretches look as wild and untamed as it had been in the days of the plantations. Areas that weren't cultivated with cotton supported trees so large and ancient they created a brittle archway overhead. Occasionally, those trees were made grotesque, forming shapes of prehistoric monsters, by the kudzu vines that had engulfed them. All in all, the atmosphere made him feel as if he were driving through an old black-and-white horror picture.
He concentrated on the faded broken yellow line bisecting the lanes, silently ticking off the distance between him and Calvin Abbott's bereaved mother.
Occasionally, dilapidated mobile homes or tin-roofed shanties rose like cankers in the brush beside the road, the rain sheeting off the gutterless roofs to puddle on the ground. Once, a mud-caked mongrel dog shot out from a lane, giving chase for a good quarter mile before he tuckered out and gave up.
Grover first appeared in dribs and drabs along the highway: a car dealer; a field; the John Deere dealer; a field; the Dixie Drive-in, "Home of the Calhoun Burger"; a baseball diamond with a single set of sagging bleachers; a Piggly Wiggly with six cars in the parking lot; a dated yellow-brick high school. Then, tree-lined neighborhood streets with small bungalows and shotgun cottages that soon made way for larger, more stately old homes.
He passed an old brick church whose interior lights shone through the intricate stained glass, a beacon of warmth in the cold, stormy day.
When Luke reached downtown, he was hit with a strong sense of familiarity. The square was still festooned with Christmas lights that draped over the streets between the courthouse dome and the two- and three-story buildings that housed storefronts and offices on all four sides. Browning evergreen wreaths with big red bows that dripped rain and twitched in the wind encircled the globes of sidewalk lampposts.
On the courthouse square was a Nativity scene-apparently separation of church and state hadn't yet been an issue in Grover, Mississippi.
Underneath the superficial differences between his own Yankee hometown and Abbott's southern counterpart (the courthouse was definitely southern, painted white with arched second-story windows that flanked a small balcony over the main entrance; most of the surrounding businesses had galleries that extended over the sidewalk, providing both protection for the pedestrians and porches for the second floor), the small county seats were essentially the same. Same cluster of businesses around the courthouse square. Same dated storefronts. Same untimely removal of tired holiday displays.
It felt just like going home.
Instead of a growing sense of welcoming, the similarities made Luke feel as if he had sand under his skin. He hadn't been home to Indiana for more than a day or two at a time since joining the army over fifteen years ago. Since his release from the stateside hospital a week ago, there'd been a quiet burning in his gut telling him not to go back. He'd decided it was because he couldn't go home and pick up his life -the life he owed to Calvin Abbott-without first seeing Abbott's family.
But in the dark of night, when the truth couldn't be pushed away with mundane tasks, physical therapy and innocuous friendly conversation, a knot of fear replaced that burning, and he knew his life, his identity, was the Army Rangers. He was special ops from bone to skin; there wasn't anything else in him.
He turned left at the courthouse and headed west. Calvin's mother owned a greenhouse and nursery called Magnolia Mile, just outside town. Luke was going to take his chances on finding it himself before he stopped somewhere and asked. He had a strong sense of obligation not to speak to someone who might have known Calvin before he spoke to his mother-in the same way the next of kin had to be notified of a death before the general population.
The rain slackened and the windshield wipers began to skip and complain across the glass. He turned them to intermittent.
Businesses fell away in the same sporadic way they'd increased on his way into town. He passed a swampy bog, then moved into a stand of old growth forest. He was just about to decide he was on the wrong road when he saw a brightly painted sign with MAGNOLIA MILE written in fancy script over an ornate gold arrow pointing to the right, down a single-lane chip-and-seal road.
He turned. After traveling that narrow road another several minutes, Luke started to think he'd turned too soon, had missed the part of the sign that said, TURN RIGHT 1/4 MILE. The road bottomed on a low bridge over a creek, then took a near-ninety-degree turn to the left. And there it was, MAGNOLIA MILE written on a sign in front of a very large yellow Victorian house. The ornate white-trimmed front porch made a sweeping curve as it wrapped around the left side of the house. It seemed a little out of place in an area where all of the large homes sported columns and galleries, mimicking antebellum architecture no matter when they were constructed.
A matching story-and-a-half carriage house topped with a large cupola and weather vane sat behind the main house. Luke could see a couple of large, old-fashioned glass greenhouses set yet farther back. He followed the crushed-stone drive to the carriage house, which had MAGNOLIA MILE over a double French door.
Off to the side of the carriage house, a large screen of fancy white trelliswork hid the nursery stock from immediate view. In front of the screen was an artful display of sculpted garden decorations, birdbaths, benches, wrought-iron gates and arches, tiny waterfalls. Even in the miserable weather, it looked inviting. Abbott's mother obviously had a talent for her work.
Abbott had a younger brother, Cole, who was still in high school. Luke supposed it was a bit of cowardice that made him arrive here during school hours. But he allowed himself that. It was going to be difficult enough to face Abbott's mother; facing the youngster who worshipped him would be more than Luke could stand.
He got out of the car and hurried inside, the first couple of steps the most painful; he'd been in the car too long. The first floor of the carriage house had been converted into a shop. It was warmed by a potbellied stove and smelled of old wood, peat moss and fertilizer. Various houseplants hung in baskets from the rafters. The cash register sat on a long counter near the left wall. There was a tent-shaped paper sign beside it that said, IN THE GREENHOUSE. C'MON BACK.
Luke had been away from small towns long enough for an unattended cash register to make him nervous. He went to the back door. It was a good thirty yards to the first greenhouse, and the rain had picked up again. At least the crushed-stone walkway would keep him from sinking knee-deep in mud. He lowered his head and made for the greenhouse at a gimpy trot, trying to avoid the deepest of the puddles.
Two things hit him when he pulled open the steamed-over glass door. A wave of hot air, and Def Leppard rattling the glass panes with "Pour Some Sugar On Me."
"Hello?" He didn't see anyone right away. His gaze scanned over the green leaves springing up from the plant tables. There, in the far corner, he saw two arms with fisted hands making simultaneous circles overhead in time with the music. Occasionally, light hair would bob above the greenery.
Surprise trickled through him. Abbott's mother was... boogying?
Luke called hello again, working to reform the image he'd created of Abbott's mother. Luke had imagined a softly rounded body topped with semi-stylish gray hair that smelled of freshly baked cookies, snow-white Keds and a theme sweater. Maybe Yanni or John Tesh. Certainly not Def Leppard.
The dancing continued. He walked toward that corner of the greenhouse, calling out twice to no avail.
When he reached the aisle where he'd seen the hands, he stopped and stared.
Abbott had said his mother was "unconventional." But no way could Luke see what was before him as a mother. Definitely not Abbott's. A long strawberry-blond braid hung down the tall slender back, swaying as the young woman undulated provocatively with the music. Her short top rode up, showing a curving waist over her low-slung jeans. Those graceful arms bent and she rested her hands on her hair as her head bobbed from side to side. Luke had never seen a sight quite so unconsciously alluring.
Def Leppard continued to beg for little Miss Innocent to sugar them up-and Luke wanted just that.
She spun around. Luke opened his mouth to speak, but her eyes were closed. Her hips moved in a way that he'd forgotten a woman could. Her elbows came forward, her hands still on the back of her head. Her navel winked at him. Luke's mouth went dry.
You can't just stand here. "Ex-" he swallowed, trying to get some moisture back over his dry vocal cords. "Excuse me!" he shouted.
Her eyes opened. Her hands flew to her heart and she jumped several inches in the air. "Good Lord, man! Are you trying to give me a heart attack?" Her voice held a strong Mississippi accent, but not the backwoodsy sort, more like a southern debutante, sorority girl at Ole Miss. Then her eyes narrowed and she crossed her arms over her chest. "Just how long have you been standing there?"
Luke felt heat come to his cheeks. Jesus, was he blushing? "Not long." He wasn't sure she could hear his denial over the bass beat of the music.
She pinned him with a challenging glare that told him she'd heard just fine. She had beautiful light green eyes that flashed the same fire he'd seen in her dancing. But the way she tugged the hem of her top over her jeans showed just how uncomfortable his spying had made her-no matter what her show of cool.
"I'm-" "Wait!" She walked toward him, holding up a finger. "Let me turn this music down." She stepped around him and trotted to a table beside the door he'd come in.
As she passed, he caught a scent as sultry as that dance she'd been doing. She dressed in a manner that said she didn't work at looking good-which somehow made her all the more appealing. He tried to figure her age. It was hard to tell; she wore no makeup and had a very youthful spring in her step as she ran to the table. Much too young for you, Luke, ol' boy.
She turned down the music and looked at him again. "Now we can talk like regular people. The plants have to have four hours of music a day." Her smile was open and friendly. As he looked more closely at her eyes, he thought perhaps she wasn't so young.
He shuffled his male curiosity back into the closet as he took several steps in her direction. "The plants like rock?" "The boss lady insists they prefer classical, something with energy. She doesn't like them to hear ballads-makes them depressed. Def Leppard has plenty of energy." She flipped her long braid back over her shoulder and lifted her chin slightly.
Luke thought he saw a hint of blush on her cheeks that belied her rebellious stance. Again, he was drawn to her complex mixture of innocence and spunk.
"I see." He shifted his weight from his bad knee. "I'm looking for M-" he started to say Mrs. Abbott, but knew Abbott's mother had remarried after his father died; Cole was actually his half-brother. Calvin always referred to his mother as Liv, never Mom, or Ma, or Mother. Luke had no idea what her last name was. "For Olivia," he finished. Using her first name felt disrespectful to his military-trained tongue.
"She had to go to town. She should be back in about fifteen minutes. Can I do something for you?"
"No, actually, it's personal." He paused and looked around. "I'll just wait in my car." He started to take a step, but immediately felt his knee begin to buckle. Shifting his weight back to his good leg, he saved himself an embarrassing stumble.
She cast a quick glance at his bad knee, her forehead wrinkled with a frown. Then her gaze passed over the ugly, jagged scar on the side of his neck. He tensed, dreading her questions, her pity.
Her gaze then connected with his. He wasn't sure what he saw in her eyes, but it wasn't pity. "Wouldn't you like some coffee while you wait?"
"No, thanks. I don't want to interrupt your...work. I'll just wait outside for Olivia." He was torn between wanting to be away from the possibility of questions that Olivia had the first right to ask, and the warmth of long-denied feminine contact. There had been plenty of female hands on him in the hospital, but to have real interaction with a woman- well, it had been a long, long time.
He started to step around her and she put a hand on his arm. "Please. I'd feel just terrible with you sitting out there in the cold."
He hesitated. Her touch warmed him through the layers of clothing, right to the bone.
"I can tell by your accent you're not from around here," she said. "Maybe you don't know how it works down South." She drew out the words he-yah and down Saauth, emphasizing her own accent. "We invite. You accept. Otherwise our feelings are hurt." She smiled again. "You're lucky I didn't offer you sweet tea. You Yankees don't seem to have a taste for sweet tea."
He smiled back. It shocked him to realize just how foreign smiling felt. It was almost like the first time he bent his wounded knee after having the brace removed, as if the muscles had to work just to remember how. "I'd be honored to share a cup of coffee with such a lovely flower of the South." He gave her a gallant sweeping bow befitting a Confederate officer. He could hardly believe he was flirting. It felt even more alien than smiling.
"That's more like it." She spun around with a satisfied look on her face and headed toward the door with quick, sure steps.
She was halfway there when she must have sensed that he wasn't right behind her. She slowed her pace, without turning around, without making him self-conscious. God, he couldn't wait for the day when he was himself again.
A little voice in the back of his brain whispered, You will never again be the man, the soldier, you were.
He shook off the thought and plunged outside right behind her into the rain. She held back, kept herself from running through the downpour. Her sensitivity to his pride pricked in a way that was almost more painful than other folks' outright sympathy.
Pushing himself to move faster, he nudged her from behind. "Go!"
She broke into a trot. His knee hurt, but he made himself keep up. Even so, by the time they reached the carriage house, they were both soaked to the skin.
Once inside, she spun around, wiping the water from her face, laughing. It was a beautiful sound, bringing to mind warm, soft breezes and church bells.
"Good heavens!" She looked at him. "Oh, my. You're drenched. Let me get something to dry us off."
She went behind the counter that held the cash register and rummaged around while Luke stood dripping on the floor.
"This will have to do." She held up a roll of paper towel and pulled off a long strip. Coming back to Luke, she held it out for him.
"This'll do fine. Thank you." He took the towels, but could hardly mop himself for watching the way she patted her face and throat dry-and the way her wet shirt clung to her curves.
Luke heard a snort from the corner of the room and flinched guiltily. He'd been staring at her as if they were alone. Apparently they weren't.
When he looked around, he saw only a huge red-brown bloodhound curled up in a dark corner. "That's Rufus, our guard dog."
Luke looked at her in disbelief. "Guard dog? I walked in here earlier and didn't even notice him. I could have carried the place off." He didn't tell her that he was equally remiss. At the top of his form, he'd never have missed the presence of a living, breathing being inside a room. No matter how still it made itself.
The dog let one sleepy eye fall shut. She laughed. "I doubt that. That's all part of his plan, making you think he's not paying attention. Just try to get near that cash register."
Luke couldn't imagine a dog having a "plan." "Go on. Try it." She gestured toward the register.
Tipping his head, Luke grinned. "Okay. But just to prove you need to rely on locked doors and not a lazy hound." He walked toward the front door.
Rufus remained snoozing in his corner. Luke stepped closer to the register. Rufus didn't move.
Walking right up to the counter, Luke looked at the dog and waited. One eye opened.
"Not much of a deterrent," Luke said, shaking his head in amusement.
"Rufus just doesn't like to waste a lot of energy carrying on. He knows when to get to business. Try to pick it up." She stood with her arms crossed and a grin on her face. Luke reached for the register.
In a red-brown blur, the dog leapt across the room in one bound. A deep growl was followed by an equally deep round of barking that rattled the windows, as well as Luke's self-confidence.
Rufus showed an impressive display of sharp white teeth set in a jaw the size of a horse's and maneuvered himself between Luke and the door.
Luke yanked his hands away from the register, his heart hammering in his chest.
The dog inched closer, head low, teeth bared, hackles raised.
"Okay, okay, I let it go," Luke said with his hands in the air, backing slowly away.
The dog still looked ready to pounce. "Hey, lady, call off Cujo!"
"Rufus, down." She didn't raise her voice at all. The dog's lips relaxed and he flopped in a wrinkly brown mass to the floor. He blew out a long breath that flapped his lips and watched the woman with adoring eyes.
Luke licked his lips. "Well, okay, then. I'm convinced."
"Actually, poor Rufus never gets to do that; everyone around here already has wind of his reputation." She walked over to the dog, knelt down and ruffled his long ears.
Luke said, "Normally, I get along fine with dogs. Still, if I were you, I wouldn't put my face quite so close to those ...those fangs."
She laughed. "He won't hurt me-only someone who wants to hurt me."
A large pink tongue swiped across her face. "Yes, I love you, too, big fella."
She stood back up and looked at Luke, extending her hand. "I'm Analise. Cream in your coffee?"
Giving his head a slight shake, Luke caught up with the change in conversation. He kept his eye on the dog for another heartbeat. He really did like dogs. However, he'd never faced a hundred pounds of snarling teeth and muscle before. "Yes, please." He shifted his gaze to her and shook her hand. It felt strong and gentle at the same time. "And I'm Luke Boudreau."
Her hand spasmed slightly in his. A little breath hitched in her chest. Her lips opened slightly and her eyes widened. Her face seemed to blanch. "Oh." She finally blinked and swallowed. "I'll get the coffee."
She hurried into another room, leaving Luke feeling like he should have recognized her name. Calvin didn't talk much about home-only rarely of his mother and little brother. Luke suddenly realized he'd served beside the man for three years and could count on one hand the personal details he knew about his life.
When Analise returned, color was back in her cheeks. She carried two mugs of steaming coffee. She handed one to Luke and motioned for him to sit at the metal caf? set near the stove. She sat across the small table from him, concentrating on the steam rising from her cup.
After a few seconds she raised her gaze and looked at him. Her mouth remained relaxed, not reflecting the emotion that Luke thought he caught in her eyes. There was something in her stare that reached right down inside him and grabbed the pit of his stomach. She finally released him from the power of that jade gaze, lowered her lashes and took a sip from her cup.
Luke drank his own coffee, content to let the silence play out.
Analise's long fingers fiddled with the cup that sat in front of her. Luke noticed her fingernails were short and stained from working with plants. She had what looked like a long, narrow burn across the back of her left hand. After a few minutes she raised her gaze and sighed. "You served with Calvin." It wasn't a question.
He nodded. "I'd really like to wait for Olivia...." For a second, offense flashed in her eyes, sharp and accusing. Then she said softly, "Of course."
He felt badly, so he tried to initiate polite conversation.
"So what about you? Have you always lived in Grover?" She withdrew her hands from the table and put them in her lap. "No, I grew up around Jackson. Calvin brought me here."
Just then, a woman who had to be Calvin's mother came hustling through the front door. She collapsed her umbrella and stomped her feet, which, despite the weather, sported Birkenstocks and white socks. Her gray hair was in an unexpected short-spiky 'do that made Luke think of Annie Lennox. The woman was short, rather box-shaped, with full cheeks, Calvin's slightly-tilted-upward brown eyes and generous mouth, and a virtually nonexistent neck. The big, loose, cable-knit sweater she wore hit her at midthigh, nearly swallowing her up. She moved in a no-nonsense, take-charge way that belied her elfish appearance.
"Oh! Company!" She smiled, and the warmth of it shot right to Luke's scarred heart. This was clearly the face of a woman who never turned a soul away from her doorstep. Still, he doubted her exuberance would last once she knew who the "company" was.
He stood and tipped his head. "Luke Boudreau, ma'am." Her smile slipped just a little, but she quickly recovered.
"You're here about Calvin." Although her smile remained on her face, Luke could see a spark of pain in her eyes. "Yes, ma'am."
Beside him, Analise made a little hiccup sound. He kept his gaze on Olivia.
She pulled in a deep breath that appeared to add an edge of stiffness to her posture, as if drawing herself up, bracing herself to face something unpleasant yet inevitable. Then she walked toward him, a congenial expression maintained on her face. "I see you've already met Calvin's wife."
Luke's tingling fingers felt like they'd taken a shot of electricity. His heart beat in a chest that suddenly felt cold and hollow. Wife? How could I not have known Calvin had a wife?
Excerpted from Magnolia Sky , by Susan Crandall . Copyright (c) 2004 by Susan Crandall . Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top