… a sample from With Strings Attached, by Vanessa Grant
Happy birthday, Molly. The cabin’s yours, but get out there right away. I’ve left Trouble with food for a day or two, that’s all.
Pack up on a moment’s notice? Drive three thousand miles in a tearing hurry to rescue a cat! No one but Saul would have the nerve to demand such a crazy favor. No one but Molly would be gullible enough to agree.
‘A birthday present,’ Saul had announced, his voice quick and persuasive on the telephone. Impossible to resist his enthusiasm as he rushed through instructions. ‘Get to the lawyer today and sign the papers- I’ve sent them express. Then pack.’
Molly remembered every one of the five times her father had marked her birthday with extravagant gifts. Gifts, growled Aunt Carla, instead of apologies for the other times when he had simply forgotten.
He had telephoned the day after her twenty-sixth birthday. From New York, he said rapidly, although the last she heard, he had been somewhere on Canada’s west coast, deep in preparation for his September showing in Paris.
Sitting in her Ottawa apartment, Molly had closed her greenish-blue eyes and listened to his voice, had felt pleasure sweep over her. She hadn’t been expecting a birthday call, certainly not a present. She had learned years ago that anticipation too often led to disappointment. She knew her father loved her, knew it was not realistic to expect a great artist to have everyday virtues. Enough that Aunt Carla and Uncle Gordon had invited her to dinner at their apartment in Toronto; that Thomas, the man she had been dating lately, had brought flowers.
Incredible that Saul should call, beyond belief that he should casually- over the telephone- tell her he was giving her a home, a place of her own. A dream.
It had taken Molly six days of driving, sleeping in rest areas and economy motels, to reach the Pacific Coast. Driving forever, it seemed, but finally the coast had come. Vancouver. The water. The ferry. Journey’s end. Soon.
Sitting in her gold van on the car deck of the ferry; Molly finger-combed her shoulder-length black curls and waited for the ramp to go down on Vancouver Island.
She remembered other adventures, excitement tumbling into worry and disaster. Aunt Carla could be right in her assessment of Saul’s latest crazy request. One telephone call from her father and Molly’s life was turning upside down. Nothing new in that. Her earliest memory was of Saul standing in the middle of a rented studio somewhere, waving a sable paintbrush and announcing that Paris would be a good place to live. For a while.
Molly thought she must have been about five years old that day, all wide eyes and black, curly hair. She knew she was seven when they went to Athens. Eight in London. Eleven in Mexico City. Twelve in Montreal, where it all stopped.
In Montreal, Aunt Carla had descended on Saul and bullied him into sending his daughter to a regular school, a regular home- Aunt Carla’s.
Thank God for Aunt Carla and Uncle Gordon, thought Molly as she drove her van down the ferry ramp and onto Vancouver Island. Without the stability of Aunt Carla’s home, Molly might never have learned that life could be steady. Peaceful. Geographically stable.
So why, after fourteen years of living quietly first in Toronto, then in a shared Ottawa apartment- why was she letting one telephone call from Saul send her driving off into the sunset? Why, when she had vowed that she would never drive off the edge of the world for anyone again?
‘Take it slow,’ Carla had insisted. ‘Check it all out first.’
Sensible, if it were not for the cat Saul had left behind. Carla had suggested the S.P.C.A., but the cat was Molly’s responsibility now. It wasn’t that she was counting on Saul’s gift of a home. She knew about Saul’s gifts. Sometimes he took them back, often he failed to pay for them. Molly had given up her share of the apartment in Ottawa, yes, but she could always go back, find another place to live. She had not burned any bridges that couldn’t be re-built.
Molly knew she must be careful with Saul’s castles in the sky. Careful, but not paranoid. Even if the cabin turned out to be a hovel in a swamp, she would enjoy the adventure.
She followed the flow of cars without a clue of where she was. Ashore now. Vancouver Island. The City of Nanaimo, yes, but where in Nanaimo? She could find her way around Ottawa and Montreal and Paris, but this was foreign territory, three thousand miles from home and she was exhausted.
Last night she had stayed at an economy motel on the outskirts of Vancouver, had spent the night listening to a screaming battle in the next unit. When dawn came, she had packed up and gone for breakfast at an all-night restaurant, then found a drive-in tourist information centre. She needed information on how to find Gabriola Island and Saul’s cabin.
Her cabin now.
She had tried to sleep on the ferry, but there had been a rough chop and Molly had felt vaguely nauseated all the way from the mainland to Vancouver Island. Where was Saul now? Why could he not have waited? Met her?
Six days driving and if Saul had not been in such a crazy rush he would have waited for her before he took off for his mysterious destination. Or given her directions. Molly laughed, knowing how impossible that was, how typical the whole thing was of her father. Who else but a crazy artist would tell her to come, urgently, then totally neglect to give a few basic instructions. Your house now, Molly, but look after the cat. I’ve got to leave her alone, so please come right away.
Molly swung the steering wheel to the left and followed a green car through a controlled intersection. Had she just turned onto the Trans-Canada highway? These British Columbians had a nerve, calling it the Trans-Canada highway after interrupting it for a ferry crossing of Georgia Strait. Where the devil were the signs? Could you turn off route 1 to that other ferry? Or- Gabriola Island. It must be an Indian name. Or was it Spanish? Gabriola. Yes, Spanish.
She knew so little about it. A gulf island nestled against Vancouver Island. Ferry service to Nanaimo. Mild climate. Romantic. Beautiful, Saul had said, but Saul could see beauty in anything. Her home. How could she say no when Saul suddenly offered her a home of her own. And a cat, for crying out loud, when she knew nothing about cats. Trust Saul to call it a gift, then add that business about the cat, making it impossible for Molly to delay coming.
A cat named Trouble. Molly’s lips twitched as she drove through the sudden congestion of Nanaimo’s downtown area. Aunt Carla had been full of warnings and doom, but the thought of a cat named Trouble had made the whole thing seem more like a story out of one of Molly’s children’s books.
Aunt Carla, always so calm and cool, had turned wild when Molly told her about the house. ‘You know what he’s like. – the neighbors are about to lynch him, or the place is mortgaged and the bank’s about to foreclose. Or it’s built on a bog and sinking. Molly, it’s a trap!’
Saul Natham had been a charmer from his infancy, but Carla had memories of more than once when her older brother had left her in the middle of a mess, and himself miraculously free of trouble. Saul Natham was trouble. Always had been. He was also an incredibly talented artist, and Molly’s father. If he wanted to leave her a house and a troublesome cat, Molly knew she simply had to accept. Carefully.
For all her reservations, she could not resist the growing excitement. Her own home, a log cabin among the trees, in walking distance to the wild Pacific Ocean. A place where she could spread out her easel and Alex’s latest manuscript. No downstairs neighbors to complain about the smell of her paints. No landlord to raise the rent.
A place in the country. She had no idea why it fascinated her so. knew it was crazy to yearn for the open countryside. Molly Natham, who had never lived in a city with a population of less than half a million! She had no clear picture of life in the open, only a hazy fantasy. Quite probably, she would suffer cabin fever within twenty-four hours.
Saul’s voice over the telephone had painted a magical picture. No directions, but enchantment promised if she ever found the place. Molly had fantasized herself taking root on Saul’s island with the strange name. Gabriola. Perhaps she would stay forever. The island children would tiptoe past and whisper about the strange old maid who painted dinosaur pictures. Molly would go for walks, smell the evergreens and watch the deer. Her own place. Not a condo eleven stories above the ground, as she had been thinking of buying lately, but a real cabin with real land and real trees, her own plot of dirt.
She had not told anyone how the dream excited her, not Aunt Carla or Uncle Gordon. Certainly not Thomas, who had stared at her with accusation when she announced she was leaving. She had felt uncomfortable at the look in Thomas’ eyes, knowing he would never be more than a friend to her.
Probably no man would. She was as restrained in her relations as her father was extravagant. She simply did not have Saul’s depth of feeling.
Better that way. Saul was an extraordinary artist, but his life was all tragedy and ecstasy and crises. Molly needed tranquility, which let out greatness and falling in love.
Gabriola Ferry. Molly saw the sign too late. She was in the wrong lane and the traffic was too heavy to change. She turned right at the intersection, meaning to double around, but found herself driving uphill heaven-knows-where, with no chance of doubling back. She kept trying to turn right and right again, to retrace her steps, but in fact it took her fifteen minutes to find her way back to the street with the sign.
Trouble. Six days driving. Eight days since Saul had called. Had he left the poor cat alone? Surely he would have found a neighbor to look after it? Were there neighbors? The cat named Trouble had haunted Molly ever since Saul called. She had thrown her things into the van in a fury of activity. She had called the movers to take the extra boxes to Aunt Carla and Uncle Gordon’s for storage; then made a flying trip to the bank for cash, to the post office to arrange for her mail to be re-directed to Aunt Carla.
Rushing, worried about a cat she had never met. Trouble was the cat’s name, but if Aunt Carla had her way, Trouble would be Saul’s first name, too. There! The ferry sign. Gabriola.
She paid her fare and asked for a copy of the schedule. Then she drove ahead into lane number one as she was instructed. She parked her van at the front of the empty lane and studied the schedule. The next ferry would not leave for forty minutes. Commuter tickets. Next time, she would buy a book of them. The thought gave her a pleasing feeling of belonging.
Would hers be the only vehicle on the ferry?
Molly locked her van and went into the small waiting room near the ferry ramp. Empty. Obviously mid-afternoon was a quiet time for the ferry. She studied the bulletin board, intrigued.
Jill-of-all-trades looking for work on Gabriola: milking goats, chopping wood, tending babies … Two ton truck for sale, good work truck with rough body … Zen meditation classes … Poetry readings… Sunday dinner special at a Gabriola pub … student needs ride to 8:00 a.m. ferry from Silva Bay.
Molly prowled along the bulletin board, reading about apples and fresh honey for sale. A Saturday meeting for islanders to protest a proposed industrial plant. A rate-payers meeting to discuss applications for zoning changes. A play to be performed at the community hall, depicting the settling and development of the Gulf Islands.
She had come a long way. All the way from Ottawa to an island small enough to put up community notice boards. Molly left the waiting room, her lips curved in a smile. She might even go to that play herself.
There was another vehicle behind hers now, a white classic Corvette with its convertible top down. Molly felt increasingly aware of the man at the wheel as she crossed the pavement towards her own vehicle. Just the two of them, alone in the ferry line-up. Would she eventually come to know who he was? Would she learn all the islanders by name? How many were there?
Should she smile at him? Say hello? Or simply lift her hand in a casual greeting? Or nothing? Was it true that country people were friendlier? Fantasy, to think she would come to belong. She looked out over the water, wondered which way the ferry came and whether that island across the harbor was her new home.
Home? Or a temporary residence? Somewhere in all this there had to be a catch; perhaps even the potential for disaster that was so often entangled with Saul’s impulses.
It was a gorgeous car, sleek and white and impractical, but it was the man who made her feel flustered- too conscious of herself and restlessly aware of him. He had dark hair, perhaps pure black like her own. His curls had escaped to determined freedom across one side of his forehead. A moustache, black and strong above his upper lip. Sexy, she thought, then glanced away quickly. His face remained clearly focused in her mind. Tanned skin, or was it naturally dark? Eyes- dark brown? or black?
Unbelievable. She had only glanced at him, more at the car really, but her mind held the image. Well, she was an artist, wasn’t she? Yes, but she did not normally wander around taking mental snapshots of intriguing men. If she were a portrait painter, he would make a good subject. Arresting face, dark and strong and… well, sensual. Or was it the mental association of the open sports car that gave that impact?
She felt his eyes touching her as she tried to jam the ignition key into the door lock. She realized her mistake and found the right key, then tried to insert it upside down.
His voice was deep, filled with pleasant harmonics. She looked up, straight into his eyes. Too close. Twenty feet away, but it seemed that he was staring directly into her mind. She felt a flush rising and her usually quiet voice came out in a sharp challenge.
‘What makes you think that?’
Friendly place, Saul had said. Not nosy, which would be a drag, but people were easy to talk to. The man in the Corvette was amused, although it was crazy to think she could see laughter in a pair of black eyes twenty feet away.
‘Your license plates,’ he explained reasonably. ‘Ontario plates. And you locked you car, which isn’t exactly island style.’
Island style. In the city, she would have frozen him with one cold glance; but she had no idea what you said to a fellow islander. She remembered the easy informality of the bulletin board and felt awkwardly out of place.
She frowned and tried to pretend he wasn’t watching her, but could not help feeling that he liked what he saw.
He would be tall. His shoulders were broad under that soft, maroon sweater. Expensive sweater, with an immaculate shirt collar rising neatly above the V-neck, a tie that echoed the sweater. He had good taste, or someone who picked his clothes did. Wife? Girl friend? His lips were curved slightly, waiting to smile. The edge of the off-white collar contrasted against the dark, tanned flesh of his neck. If her fingers brushed along the side of his neck, would his skin feel cool? Or hot and dry? Would it- Stop it!
‘Are you staying on the island?’ he asked.
Ridiculous to feel goose bumps along her midriff from the sound of a voice. ‘Yes,’ she muttered as the key finally turned in the lock of the door.
She was not going to succumb to the strange impulse to stand here talking to him, asking if he was an islander, why he was driving around in mid-afternoon when he looked a man who was a successful something. Lawyer, perhaps. Or accountant. Doctor. Not run-of-the-mill, whatever he was. Impulsive, she decided, although he would keep it under a stern leash. She swung open the door to her van and nodded in his general direction with deliberate breeziness. Then she twisted her way behind the steering wheel and slammed the door. She felt like a fool.
She had an uncanny conviction that the stranger knew exactly how peculiar he made her feel.
# # #
When the van held on South Road at the Gabriola post office turn-off, Patrick McNaughton cancelled his own left turn signal and followed.
As if he had no choice.
He sucked in a deep breath and forced his grip on the steering wheel to relax. What the hell had gotten into him? Those images playing on his mind from the instant when he first saw her. A woman, a stranger, walking towards him. She had curly, black hair that would twist and cling to a man’s fingers when he caressed it. He had watched and the images had exploded.
For all he knew, she had a brain the size of a peanut under that wonderful hair. Even if she had the intelligence to carry on a rational conversation, she had shown no desire to do so. Not with him. She had not looked directly at him, just that one startled flash of soft eyes when he spoke to her back on the Nanaimo side. Obviously a city girl, astounded at his casual informality.
How many years since he had spoken to a strange woman, fully intending to pursue her? In recent years his affairs had been careful, safe, and not all that frequent. Today, for example, the man-woman game had been the last thing on his mind. He had been deep in the problem of the Haddleson top-down design, oblivious to the world. He could not remember giving his commuter pass to the woman in the BC Ferries ticket booth. Or had it been a man? Patrick had been too deep in thought to notice. He did remember pulling away from the booth, though, driving into the ferry line-up; except that in mid-afternoon it wasn’t a line-up at all. Just one other vehicle.
Patrick had braked and turned off the engine, snapped open his briefcase and pulled out his notebook computer. Haddleson. The cursor blinked as the file came on-screen. Outline, level one: input-output criteria. Level two-
His eyes had moved away from the screen, caught by some movement in his peripheral vision while his fingers kept typing.
Then his hands had stilled.
She was walking towards him, must have come out of the waiting room. Immaculate blue denim jeans and medium-heeled sandals. A green collar under her bulky, rust-colored sweater. She was tall enough to make those long, slender legs seem right. Perfect, in fact. She had a loose, long-limbed way of moving that made him think of innocent sensuality. Her hips were slender, but the movement of her walk encouraged her sweater to pull against a woman’s voluptuous breasts.
He had felt the hard rhythm of his own pulse echoing through his body. Something about the way she walked. Something…
For a man who sometimes had problems remembering the names and faces of people he’d just met; Patrick was left with an impossibly vivid picture of her face. Her features were drawn a little too sharply. His mother would say that she needed feeding. Big, big eyes that caught at something inside him. Patrick thought she worked too hard, too intensely. She needed laughter. He wanted to give it to her.
She was not beautiful, although it would be impossible to feel the pull of any other woman if she were in the room. Something in her eyes. He wished he were closer, could see better.
Eyes. Her eyes. Not brown. Not blue either. He had to know…
Was he really following a total stranger to learn the color of her eyes? The van slowed abruptly and Patrick shifted down into second gear. She was driving a little erratically, a stranger to the awkward curves that made speeding both dangerous and uncomfortable on Gabriola. Ontario plates. He had memorized the numbers, had memorized the woman, seeing the echo of her face and remembering her voice all through the twenty minute ferry ride. Her face, when all he could actually see was the dark silhouette of her hair through the van’s windows on the ferry. Her voice, when she had said a total of six words to him. What makes you think that? and Yes.
His mind dissolved into a graphic fantasy. Yes. Would she say yes if he kissed those lips gently, exploring the softness, searching for her surrender?
More likely, she would slap his face.
He had spent the entire ferry ride to Gabriola trying to concentrate on the screen of the notebook computer, fighting the magnetic pull that drew his eyes to the silhouette in the window of the van in front of him. Impossible, it turned out, and in the end he had actually started a new file and typed into it what he knew about her.
She came from back East. Ontario, but where? Toronto, perhaps? Age, mid-twenties. Height, five foot seven or eight. He tried to put that into centimeters but got lost in deciding that the top of her head would come somewhere around his lips. He would bend and bury his face in the soft riot of her curls. She had a walk that would make a fortune for a dancer. A husky, low voice that sent crawling awareness along Patrick’s veins. What would her laughter do to his pulse? Would her eyes soften with loving? He had not seen their color, but the message had been very plain. She had no interest in the searing awareness she had stirred in Patrick McNaughton.
But she had felt it. He remembered that electric feeling of awareness, her hand fumbling with the keys to her van.
Five minutes after the ferry left the Nanaimo dock, Patrick had watched her get out of her van and walk forward to stand at the rail. After a few minutes in the cool ocean wind, she had gone inside to the passenger lounge. Patrick had wanted to go with her, to shelter her from the cold with his arms.
He had forced himself not to follow her. She obviously did not want him at her side, had carefully avoided looking at his car. He was certain, though, that she was every bit as aware of him as he was of her. He would follow on the Gabriola side, until he found out the color of her eyes and where she was staying. She wasn’t a woman to be picked up by a stranger, but if he met her in the normal way it might be different. Uneasily, he realized that with all the new people moving onto the island recently, he might not know the people she was staying with.
She might have come to visit a girlfriend or some distant cousin. She might be staying at one of the bed and breakfasts, a tourist on holiday. He would find out.
She might be married.
He suspected that he would wake up sometime this evening and feel like a fool. Following a woman, for heaven’s sake! Those few seconds of watching her in motion kept playing again and again in his mind. She was lean, yet soft woman. His blood kept pounding. He felt hot, dizzy, as if his fingers had brushed the soft, warm curves of her femininity.
Abruptly, her van pulled off onto a wide gravel shoulder. Patrick was past before he could brake, his eyes echoing with a glimpse of her face turned to watch as he drove past. Resentment or anger in her eyes.
He realized that his hands and his feet were making motions, gearing down, braking. Stop. Go back. Ask her…
Ask her what, for God’s sake?
He jammed his foot to the floor. The Corvette took off along South road with a whine of power.
It was probably that damned book his sister Sarah had been reading lately. Just last night she had been telling him he was overdue for his thirties crisis.
‘You see, Pat, you’ve built your little empire- Well, your biggish empire.’
‘A big frog in a little pond,’ he’d countered lightly. ‘Vancouver Island isn’t the world.’
‘No, but- Listen to me, Pat! You’ve been devoting all your time to success. What about falling in love? Having children of your own? It’s going to hit you one of these days! Time’s running out for you, and you’ll go down like a ton of bricks, because you’re ripe for realizing how much you’re missing.’
With Sarah’s theory ringing in his ears, Patrick followed South Road around the bottom of the island until it became North Road, then he turned off and drove up the hill, past the McNaughton farm and on to the small subdivision of five acre parcels his father had developed twenty years ago. Sarah and her brothers had each fallen heir to one of the parcels on their twenty-first birthdays. Sarah and her husband had build a bed and breakfast on their land. Patrick had built the cedar home that was really too big for him, but he could not imagine living anywhere else now. David, their older brother, had sold his acreage and put the money into the family farm that he now managed.
Funny tricks the subconscious played. Sarah’s self-help book, her words echoing in Patrick’s mind. To be honest, he had caught himself now and then lately, feeling an emptiness in the moments between jobs. He needed a change, something new, had even considered saying yes to the committee that had approached him about running for a seat in the British Columbia legislature.
New frontiers, that was what he needed.
He had always thought he would marry eventually, when the time and the woman were right. But the years had passed and he had never met a woman he wanted to share his home with. He would have liked children, but the thought of opening his walls to the wrong woman was frightening.
The woman in the van, waking in his bed with her eyes sleepy and filled with love.
A symbol. She would be married, her own life, even her own children. Something in her walk had caught his imagination, that was all. A signal, perhaps, that he should think about finding someone to share his home with, his life.
No hurry, he decided, shaking off the stranger’s spell. He turned into his own driveway, more comfortable now that the crazy compulsion to pursue the strange woman had passed. He parked beside the two storey cedar home nestled under the evergreens. A wisp of smoke crawled out of the chimney. He had banked the wood fire down this morning. After a surprisingly cool night, the April sun had risen to warm the house, beating in through the skylights in his cathedral ceiling.
Patrick froze as a strange sound echoed through the clearing. A second later, it resonated again, a grating noise invading the quiet. How many times lately had he woken in the middle of the night to that strange cross between a rustle and a twang? Too often!
He dropped the briefcase on the veranda and ran around to the back of the house. Patrick liked to eat back here in the sun room, enjoying the sight of the pond where the deer came at sunset, the smell of the dogwood blossoms. Every spring he took the glass windows off and replaced them with screens, only this year Saul Natham had bought the property next door, had moved in and almost immediately added that damned cat to his household!
There she was, attacking the sun room again!
‘Get off there!’ His voice rang angrily through the trees and the cat froze. ‘Yes, you damned ball of fluff! I mean you! Get the hell off my screen!’
She was half way up the side of the building, a streaky black and white mass of soft fur, plastered flat against the screen, claws curling through the fine fabric of the mesh. Patrick could see the scars from the path she had taken on her way up.
He turned away. He needed the ladder. What the hell could a man say to an animal who was probably only looking for a warm place to curl up? He would peel the bloody cat off his screen again, then he would feed it, although last time it had refused to touch his offerings.
This time, Patrick wasn’t going to replace the bloody screen until Saul Natham turned up from wherever he had gone. Natham was going to get a surprise when he returned. So far, Patrick and Natham had shared a few lazy conversations, nothing more. Enough talk for Patrick to know the artist was both entertaining and eccentric. An interesting neighbor, and thankfully his faults did not include sending loud heavy music echoing through the trees.
Now, though, Patrick was determined to make the irresponsible artist take his damned cat and look after it properly if it was the last thing he did! What kind of a man adopted a cat from the S.P.C.A., then went off and left the thing to fend for itself? The poor beast had been howling for days after Natham disappeared, then it had decided to attach itself to Patrick’s house.
To his house, but not to Patrick himself. The cat had accepted the odd offering of food, but hadn’t consented to come inside when Patrick was home. That hadn’t stopped her from trying to break in when the place was empty, tearing up window screens and once getting stuck in the chimney and emerging black and wild-eyed. Patrick had angry red scratches on his forearms from his battle to bathe the sooty cat after that fiasco!
The cat didn’t want a new home, she wanted Saul Natham back. God knew what it was about the aging artist next door, but the female population of the world was determined that he was irresistible- including the cat currently stuck to Patrick’s sun-room screen. How else could you explain the parade of long-legged women next door? Patrick had seen at least three different blondes draped over Natham as they walked the path through the back of Pat’s property. But a cat, for heaven’s sake! Surely a feline should have sense enough to abandon such an erratic personality and find herself a dependable master!
When Saul Natham got back…
* * *
With Strings Attached is available from