Read Banjo Man Online

Authors: Sally Goldenbaum

Banjo Man

Banjo Man
is a work of fiction. Names, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

2013 Loveswept eBook Edition

Copyright © 1985 by Adrienne Staff and Sally Goldenbaum.

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States of America by Loveswept, an imprint of Random House, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York.

L
OVESWEPT
is a registered trademark and the L
OVESWEPT
colophon is a trademark of Random House LLC.

eBook ISBN 978-0-307-82202-4

Originally published in the United States by Loveswept, an imprint of Random House, a division of Random House LLC, in 1986.

www.readloveswept.com

v3.1

Contents


Rick,

Laurie gasped
, “
what if this isn

t love
?
What if it

s a mistake
?”

Rick threw back his head and laughed. “Here,” he said, taking her hand and pressing it to his cheek. “See this face? There’s no mistaking what I feel. And here,” he added, pressing her hand against his chest, “feel this heart? I promise you, it’s no mistake. This is real, Laurie, this is life, and love.”

“But maybe it’s lust!”

“Oh, Lord, you’re wonderful!” His laughter rumbled into a growl in his throat. “
This
is lust!”

He lifted her in his arms, and tossed her onto the bed. In the same swift movement he was straddling her body, his lips nibbling at the hollow of her throat. He kissed her neck, and face and ears, quickly, playfully, his teasing mouth and words coaxing giggles from her as she wiggled away.

“That. Laurie O’Neill, is lust,” he said, rocking back on his heels at the foot of the bed. “But darlin’, what happens later … when you’re ready … that’s love.…”

Prologue

The lengths of wooden flooring were lined up in stripes, a slice of dark oak, then a light one, in perfect parallel patterns.

Polished to an impeccable sheen, the floor’s surface brightly reflected the steady swing of the black skirt moving slowly down the long hall toward the Mother Superior’s office. The rhythmic click of a single pair of black shoes and the steady ticktock of the huge grandfather clock in the convent’s parlor were the only sounds breaking the morning stillness.

Laurie O’Neill coughed softly.
There
, she thought,
at least I know I

m still alive
. Tiny flecks of dust danced in the slanted panels of light that fell out of the parlor doorways, and Laurie found herself strangely hypnotized by their movement. She shivered.

Everything was so quiet. An unearthly quiet. She took a deep breath and rested one hand over her heart to press it into calmness. But she couldn’t—and hadn’t been able to for a long time
now. Her whole being resisted the peace here at the convent. It lay in heavy folds all around her, and yet she couldn’t touch it or become part of it. Why? Was there something the matter with her? She had tried so hard, had done everything right. And yet she was still filled with an emptiness that defied explanation or reason. It was just there, right in the center of her, a cold, hollow void that ached to be filled.

Reaching the end of the hallway, Laurie paused and listened. In the distance she could just barely hear the beginnings of a chant. Matins. The sisters were all gathered in the high-ceilinged chapel for meditation and morning prayer. Listening intently to the lovely, pure sounds, Laurie gazed at the wide front hallway, lingering on the ornately carved front door.

In that instant she was swept back five years, to the crisp September morning when she and her best high-school friend, Ellen Farrell, had come through the same huge double doors, hearts thumping, hands shaking, their last cigarettes stubbed out with dramatic sighs and tossed into the bushes just outside the door. It had been five years since they’d thrown their heads back, their eyes bright with the naive dreams of youth, and begun the postulancy of the Sisters of Divine Mercy.

Ellen had lasted exactly six weeks. She’d been the class clown, the one who got them to laugh through those early, tense days when rules were carefully laid out as neatly as the boards in the floor and silence was wrapped around them in suffocating folds. Ellen had teased them all through it in her lighthearted, irreverent way, until the rules and regime seemed bearable, acceptable—a part of life. And then she left. It was early one morning, just like today.

She’d been asked not to tell anyone, and Laurie still remembered acutely the stabbing fear she’d felt that day in chapel when Ellen’s place was empty. And then it was empty again at vespers. And Laurie knew her best friend in all the world had left. She’d cried into her pillow for many nights afterward, but finally was able to move ahead. After all, the postulancy mistress had pointed out, she hadn’t joined the convent for Ellen.
She’d
be just fine. Ellen simply wasn’t cut out for this kind of life; but she, Laurie O’Neill, had the true calling.

Laurie’s gray eyes darkened with pain.
But no … she did not have it.
And now the silent hours and moments of her life here were drawing swiftly to a close.

It was time to go.

Squaring her shoulders, Laurie rounded the corner and entered the Mother Superior’s office to sign the papers that would release her from her temporary vows.

Mother Joan Mary hugged her kindly and wished her well. But it was a shame, the Mother Superior added softly as she moved toward the door. Laurie had seemed happy as a sister, had seemed to be such a beautiful bride of the Church. “Yes, it is a real shame, Sister Loretta Ann,” she whispered again as she slipped out the door and left Laurie alone to wipe away the tears and change into her clothes for whatever waited outside.

Well, Laurie thought stubbornly as she stepped out of the heavy black skirt and slid the veil off her head, perhaps it was a shame. But it was
right.
No matter what her family thought, when she’d explained it all on visiting day, no matter what the other sisters said, no matter how scared she was … deep down inside herself she had the solid comfort of knowing she, Laurie O’Neill, was right.

At the moment, that was little comfort indeed. Panic fluttered in her throat, the same panic that had kept her awake at night for weeks now, worrying and wondering about what lay ahead. How would she face the world she had left behind when she was eighteen? How would she handle it all? The prospect of even the simplest things, like eating alone in a restaurant, buying her own clothes, meeting people—meeting men!—froze her blood and made her heart thud painfully in her chest.

Her fingers fumbled at the snaps of her blouse. For just a second she wanted to cry,
I can’t do it! I’m not brave enough!
, and give in to defeat. She’d stay, hiding her head beneath the crisp white convent sheets, and never come out. It was the thought of men that did it.

Would they be attracted to her? How would she react to them? Certainly not the way she had at eighteen, when she was shy and obedient to her parents’ commands. And yet… and yet there was a yawning gulf created by five years in the convent that seemed suddenly impossible to cross. She had grown older, but certainly no wiser in relation to the opposite sex! What did she know about dating? Kissing? Touching? Loving!

Quickly she rubbed her eyes with her fingers, swallowed hard, and tipped up her chin. It was a delicate chin, but stubborn, part of the ingrained, time-honed Irish stubbornness that made her square her narrow shoulders, stiffen her spine, and fasten her even white teeth over her full, trembling lower lip. She’d come this far. She was not going to be beaten now.

She tore at the wrappings on the parcel-post package Ellen had sent, and only then did the ripples of fear begin to ease and make room for growing excitement about what lay ahead. In less
than a day she’d be with Ellen—and beginning her new life!

Ellen had written not to worry, that she’d take care of everything; and she had, from the brown cotton dress to the handbag to the beat-up Mercury she’d arranged for Laurie to drive to D.C. Laurie grinned. Ellen might be a bit crazy, but she was certainly the best friend a girl could have.

“You must come home first,” her father had insisted when she’d told him of her plans. But that was the one thing Laurie O’Neill knew with all her heart she couldn’t do. Not yet. If she fell back into the protective embrace of her family now, before she had her feet firmly planted on the ground, she might never be able to stand alone.

With renewed determination Laurie pulled the dress over her head and glanced hastily into a glass-fronted cabinet. A long, needle-sharp shiver raced through her whole body, from head to toe. So much of her showed! A goodly portion of leg, all of each arm, and, above the gently scalloped neckline, the pale, translucent skin of her chest and neck. She felt naked! Grabbing a long-sleeved sweater Ellen had mercifully thrown in, she dared a second glance into the cabinet.

How would others see her? she wondered. Was she pretty? Would people on the outside like her? She tried a smile, and pushed her fingers nervously through her clipped coppery hair. Would she meet men? How? And if she did, what in heaven’s name would she have to talk about—the merits of wearing a serge habit in the dead of winter?

“Laurie O’Neill,” she scolded aloud, “you’ve put the cart way before the horse! Cut the melodrama and get going!”

Slipping her stockinged feet into a pair of beige flats, she smoothed the dress and snapped open the pocketbook. Ellen had thought of everything—lipstick,
blusher, a wallet for the money her parents had sent, a little map directing her to Ellen’s apartment in Washington, a tiny, airplane-sized bottle of Irish whiskey, with a note—“for medicinal purposes”—taped on the side, and a small handkerchief. Ellen had folded a tiny piece of paper into the cloth, and Laurie read it slowly:
Wrap up your tears in this, and leave them there in Pennsylvania. The sun’s in the sky, God’s in His heaven, and I’m here in Washington waiting for you. All’s right with the world, and it awaits you, Laurie O’Neill!

The world awaits you
 … “And I’m ready for you,” Laurie breathed softly. “I hope …”

With one long, sweeping glance she committed to memory the place that had been home for five years, then slipped silently out into the blustery February morning and began the long drive to Washington, D.C., to Ellen’s apartment, to a new job … and her brand-new life.

One

Laurie brushed the damp tendrils of hair off her forehead and tried to force some life back into her exhausted body. Dropping the drab brown suitcase to the floor outside Ellen’s apartment, she looked dimly at her wristwatch: 3:02
A.M.

And she hadn’t even had the presence of mind to
call
Ellen. Not when her brakes failed, not when she took the wrong exit. Not when she pulled over to the side of the road to wipe the tears away. Ellen wouldn’t be expecting her anymore, would think she was coming in the next day. Ellen would suppose … but Laurie couldn’t think anymore.

She knocked weakly on the door.

The soft, dim light in the silent hallway cast eerie shadows around her, and she knocked again, shifting from one foot to the other. She had lived an eternity in one day, and she was ready for it to come to an end! Shattering the night stillness, she pounded more loudly on the door, and the sound bounced off the thinly papered walls.

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