Authors: Barbara Michaels
For Benjamin James Brown Mertz
April 2, 1994
With love from Ammie
She cursed the needle, the cloth and the thread, fixingâ¦
The black plastic bag Rachel was carrying when she leftâ¦
The setting moon shone straight into her eyes, its lightâ¦
Cheryl had been right about one thing. Once Adam gotâ¦
Adam was in the family room. “You look sort ofâ¦
“I didn't mean to do that,” Adam mumbled. “How didâ¦
“It happened almost twenty years ago,” Pat said. “I hadâ¦
After the MacDougals left, Rachel settled herself in front ofâ¦
Adam charged toward the door.
Warned by the dogs, Adam had the door open whenâ¦
“This makes twice,” Adam said indistinctly. “Do you think theâ¦
Adam was trying hard, but old ingrained habits weren't easyâ¦
Pat had plenty to say, most of it profane, butâ¦
They didn't wait up for him. Not exactly. But whenâ¦
She had anticipated everything but this. The unexpectedness of theâ¦
Easter was early that year and Adam had come toâ¦
She cursed the needle, the cloth and the thread, fixing
each stitch in place with a word of power. The murmured litany sounded so harmless, like a cat's purr or a low humming, but the other woman shivered and hunched her shoulders, like someone pelted by wind-driven sleet
It had been a long time since she'd heard words like those, but she knew what they meant, and the hands that wielded her own needle felt stiff and clumsy. She had tried to remonstrate, to warn. Might as well talk to a stone, she thought, or one of the white marble statues the old man had put up all around the garden. Heathen images they were, statues of old gods and goddesses. Naked, too, some of them. It was against Scripture: You shall make unto yourself no heathen images. She'd read it herself in the Book, spelling out the words with slow, painful care. It was a prideful thing being able to read, and harder than anything she had ever undertaken, without help or encouragement, but she had wanted to read His words for herself. This was worse than heathen images, though. This was inviting the devil into your heart and feeding him on your hate. He was there in the room with them; she could feel him. Two women, sewing by the fire, and that Presence, not hot like the Bad Place was supposed to be, but icy-cold
You're stitching your soul into it.” The words burst out of her. “There's always a price to pay. You think it's her you'll hurt, but it'll come back on you
Like talking to a stone. The soft murmur continued unbroken. The needle gliding in and out reflected the firelight like a splinter of living flame
“I can't stand it any longer.”
Rachel had never heard her speak in that tone before: flat, dead, uninflected. Cheryl didn't believe in repressing her emotions. When she was angry she could swear like a marine sergeant, at the top of her lungs and at considerable length; when she laughed her whole body shook and dimples dented her rounded cheeks. Now she sounded like a tired old woman, forty years older than her real ageâmid-thirties, Rachel assumed. The red-gold curls framed her gray face like an unsuitable wig.
Rachel glanced into the room they had just leftâthe hospital room where Cheryl's husband lay. He had roused long enough to acknowledge her presence and mutter a few words of reassurance, but now he was sleeping, stuffed full of painkillers.
“He's going to be fine. The doctor said he expects a full recovery.”
“This time.” Cheryl sagged, bracing herself against the wall. “He's been a cop for almost twenty years, sooner or later his luck was bound to run out. He could find another job, one that would pay better and wouldn't involve so much pressure. There was no need for him to answer this call. He wasn't even on duty, and it wasn't an emergencyâa domestic argument, they happen all the time. But he won't quit and he won't stay safe. They've all got guns these days, and next time it may not be his leg. Next timeâ¦”
They were only acquaintances, not on hugging terms, but Rachel put an impulsive arm around the other woman. “Come on, Cheryl. I'll drive you home.”
“Not yet. I told Kara I'd meet her here. Anyhow, I don't want the kids to see me like this.” She straightened, took a deep breath, and produced a smile. “I'll wait in the cafeteria till Kara gets here and bum a ride home from her. Or walkâit's not far. You probably have things to do, you go on.”
Rachel's eyes moved back to the open doorway. She couldn't see his face; it was hidden by the white mountain of sheets and cast. She didn't have to see it. Fifty years from now she would be able to close her eyes and remember how he had looked, gray-white skin drawn tight over the fine bones, dark eyes sunken and opaque. Drawn with shock and pain though it had been, his face was the kind that would stop any woman's breath, and the nurse's hands had lingered as she tucked the blankets around him.
“Lucky,” the doctor had said. Lucky the guy who had been beating up on his wife had grabbed the .22 instead of the shotgun. A shotgun shell at close range would have shattered his kneecap as well as the bones of his thigh.
“Poor Rachel.” Cheryl patted her shoulderâconsoling her now. “This was a hell of a thing to dump on one of my best customers. I wouldn't blame you if you never came back.”
It was stretching the truth to call Rachel a customer, much less one of the best. Most of the merchandise Cheryl sold was far beyond Rachel's meansâantique linens and vintage clothing of such extraordinary quality that her customers came from all over the country. The shop occupied the lower floor of the rambling old house in which the Cardozas lived, in the small Virginia city of Leesburg. Though not far distant from Washington, it was hard to
reach except by car. The drive was a long one even for Rachel, who lived on the Maryland side of the capital, but she made the trip frequently because for her the shop was as good as a museumâbetter, in some ways, because she was allowed to examine the objects closely, to linger and touch. Cheryl had spotted her immediately as a looker rather than a buyer, but she'd always treated Rachel with the same warmth she showed her regular customers, greeting her by name, answering her timid questions. Sometimes, when business was slow, she would close up for an hour and insist that Rachel join her in the family apartment for a sandwich or a cup of coffee. Rachel had found herself chatting as she seldom did to virtual strangersâabout her boring job as a hostess in a local restaurant and her graduate work at the University of Maryland, and the difficulty of finding time to work on her doctoral dissertation. She had met Cheryl's pets and her three children. And her husband.
“I'm sorry you got stuck with this,” Cheryl went on. “But I don't know what I'd have done if you hadn't been there when the call came. Run the car into a tree, most likely.”
Most likely she would have. The call, from the captain at the station, had been cruelly vagueâjust that Tony had been shot while trying to break up a domestic argument. It wasn't until Cheryl reached the hospital that she learned the damage was “only” a shattered leg.
When they got out of the elevator Rachel saw a familiar face. Kara was Cheryl's partner and sister-in-law, married to her brother Mark, and Kara, standing at the admissions desk, was clearly upset. Rachel could hear her clear across the lobby. “I am a member of the family, dammit! I insist you tell meâ”
Catching sight of them, she stopped shouting and ran to throw her arms around Cheryl. They hugged each other
and exchanged agitated questions and responses, while Rachel stood awkwardly to one side.
She had always felt uncomfortable with Kara. She didn't know her as well; Kara was the traveling partner, the Acquisitor, as Cheryl called herâfollowing up leads, attending sales and auctions, gathering the merchandise Cheryl sold in the shop. It took a knowledgeable eye and a great deal of expertise to spot potential prizes in a box-lot of crumpled linens or a pile of dirty old clothes. Kara had the expertise and the connections. As the wife of a fourth-term congressman she knew everyone in the political sphere; related by marriage to one of Washington's old families, she was accepted by people who wouldn't have allowed a politician in their homes. She was all the things Rachel was notâpoised, sophisticated, matureâand she wore clothes as if they had been designed specially for her.
She didn't look so sophisticated and soignÃ© that day. Her suit jacket was only half-buttoned and her makeup was smudged, especially around, the eyes, when she relaxed her grip on the other woman.
“Well, thank God it's no worse. Your message was so vague; I was afraidâ¦”
“Yeah,” Cheryl said. “Me too.”
“I'm sorry, honey, I didn't mean to sound critical. It must have been horrible for you. That bastard Schroeder has the tact of an army mule.”
“Did you call my only brother?”
Kara took a tissue from her purse and carefully blotted her eyes. “I left a message. Mark was in a meeting, as usual.”
Cheryl was back to normal, thinking about other people's needs instead of her own. “I better call again, tell him it's okay. He'll worry.”
The two men were close friends as well as related by marriage, but Mark's wife only shrugged. “There's plenty
of time, the meeting will probably last all afternoon. What can I do for you? If you want to stay here, I'll head back to the house, meet the school bus, tell the kidsâ”
“No. I have to tell them.” Cheryl glanced at the clock. “We've got a couple of hours. What you can do for me is buy me a cup of coffee. And one for Rachel. She's been great. I don't know what I would have done without her.”
Kara turned with a graceful gesture of apology and recognition. She did it wellâshe'd probably had lots of practice, pretending to remember her husband's constituents and aidesâbut Rachel could tell she didn't remember her. No reason why she should; Rachel had only met her three times, and on two of those occasions Kara had been busy with people who obviously were best customersâwell-dressed professionals who didn't so much as blink at the high prices. After a quick, automatically appraising glance at Rachel's neat, nondesigner jeans and tailored shirt, she punched in the charm, smiling, extending her hand.
“You were there when Cheryl got the news? Thanks for coming to the rescue.”
“She was wonderful,” Cheryl said warmly. “I lost it, I was bawling and racing around trying to find my car keys and the phone so I could call you, andâ¦It was a shock to her too, knowing Tony so well.”
“I didn't realize that,” Kara said.
Rachel poked a loosened strand of hair under the chiffon scarf that held it back from her face. She had been a fool to leave it hanging loose instead of braiding it as she usually did, but it was one of her few good features, thick and waving and walnut brown, and Tony worked odd hours, sometimes he was home during the dayâ¦
“He was very nice to me,” she said primly, and forced herself to meet Kara's cool, knowing eyes.
“He is nice,” Kara said. “No wonder you look so shaken. Let's get that coffee.”
Rachel knew she should refuse. Cheryl didn't need her now. She could say she had to get back to work. Cheryl wouldn't remember what she had said earlierâthat she had quit her job and had the whole day free. But she smiled and nodded and trailed along when they headed for the cafeteria.
After they settled down with coffee and sandwiches, and Kara had bullied Cheryl into eating something, Kara said briskly, “Do they have any idea how long it will be before he can go back to work?”
“I didn't ask,” Cheryl admitted.
“Of course not. But even after he's released from the hospital he'll need therapy and attention and TLC. I'll arrange to take over at the shop.”
“But you were going to Europe with Mark! You can'tâ”
“Certainly I can. A wife is just an ornamental encumbrance on trips like that. Mark would be the first to agree that your needs come first.”
“Yeah, my needs,” Cheryl said. “But not the shop. You know how he feels about it, Kara, he's been griping aboutâ”
A glance from Kara stopped her. She looked embarrassed and then defiant. “Well, he has been, and I don't care who knows it. There's another possibility. We talked before about hiring someone part-time, and here's Rachel, she just quit her job so she could finish her dissertation, and her field is folkloreâ”
“Just a minute,” Kara said gently. “Start again, from the beginning.”
Cheryl hadn't forgotten a single detail. Rachel sat like a block of wood while she explained. “She's writing about women's work and traditions as a separate cultureâ¦Have I got it right, Rachel?” She stopped with a gurgle of
self-deprecating laughter, and went on, “No, I can't explain things like that, but I understood it when you were telling me. Anyhow, she's concentrating on what they call the fabric artsâsewing and weaving, the patterns for quilts and embroidery and where they came from and the various techniques, and how they were passed on, and what they mean. She knows a lot about our kind of stuffâcostume, tooâand she's only got another year to finish, there's some kind of rule about how long you're allowed, and she's saved some money, but I'll bet she could use a little more, you always can.”
She ran out of breath, and Rachel said it before Kara did. “You don't know me. You don't know my qualifications.”
“I know more about you than I would about any other applicant. It wouldn't be hard work,” Cheryl said earnestly. “There are long stretches when nobody's in the shop, you could work on your bookâ”
“Give the girl a break, Cheryl,” Kara interrupted. “Don't rush her into a decision before she's had time to think it over. We can't pay much, Rachel, and you might find your duties interfered with your studies.”
“We could give it a try,” Rachel said, trying to sound as cool and reasonable as Kara had. “For a few weeks. You need somebody right away. If it doesn't work out, that would give you time to find someone else.”
“It's very kind of you,” Cheryl said earnestly.
It wasn't kind, and Rachel had a feeling Kara was well aware of that.
Cheryl had exaggerated when she praised Rachel's expertise. She was like that, giving people more than their due, seeing only the best in them. Rachel was glad she hadn't made any extravagant claims. The extent of her ignorance
was embarrassingly evident to her once she got to work. She knew something about quilts and woven coverlets, since she had studied the patterns for her thesis, but her knowledge was purely academic. Her only knowledge of vintage clothing had come from her visits to the shop, and the other merchandiseâantique jewelry, hats, fans, shawlsâinterested her not at all. Twinkling with gems faux and genuine, lavish with lace, feathered and embroidered and beflowered, the garments and accessories were too elaborate for her tastes and completely impractical. Imagine having to iron yards and yards of heavy cotton, eyelet-trimmed petticoats!