ONCE UPON AGAIN
excerpt

We are like birds who have forgotten we have wings,

kings and queens who have forgotten our royal heritage.

We feel enslaved by conditions that should have no power to bind us,

and powerless before forces over which we have been given dominion.

Marianne Williamson


PROLOGUE

You and I are but ripples on the sea of existence. During our brief passages here we often take the shallow view, believing life begins with our birth and ends with our death. We assume because we feel separate, we are separate. We conclude that because we do not remember other places and other times, there are no other places and times. We see ourselves with narrow eyes and feel ourselves with tiny hearts, frightened of the destination instead of celebrating the journey. Now and again, what we were shows us what we are. Now and again, what we have been calls us toward what we can be. Once upon again, we may be offered the opportunity to discover that we are no more separate from what has gone before than waves are separate from the ocean.

The surf crashes.

Foam-filled, on sullen shore

It swirls against the rocks until,

Content, it slips quietly back to sea.

The surf crashes.

--Tamiko Asaruka


CHAPTER ONE

Do not believe

Winter to be the end

Of anything.

Within its cold heart

Begins the Spring.

Stephanie’s voice floated up the stairway and into Lucin’s dressing room. “Ms. Montgomery, the car is here!”

“I’ll be right down,” Lucin answered, checking her lip liner in the vanity mirror and slipping her stockinged feet into her most comfortable pair of Italian loafers.

In the hall, she paused to admire a pale peach rose nestled amid a spray of baby’s breath in a bud vase at the top of the stairway. It was a nice reminder that spring would arrive soon and removed a bit of heaviness from her step as she descended the staircase.

“I’ll just be a couple of hours,” she said, shrugging into her wool overcoat. “Please set out the service for lunch. Harrison intends to be home around twelve-thirty.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” came the reply from the kitchen.

Lucin smiled. “Oh, and Stephanie?” she said. “The rose is lovely. Thank you.” She stepped out the side door to find James waiting under the overhang in her new, dark green Jaguar.

The car and James O’Doud were both a compromise. Her husband wanted her to have a slightly stretched Mercedes and a full-time driver. She wanted a Mini Cooper and to be left alone. They settled on a Jaguar and James to drive her through the winter, until the streets were more navigable and she better knew her way around Kansas City. She opened the passenger side door before James could get out and plopped onto the front seat. He smiled at her.

“And what is it that ya think you’re doin’ now? You’re supposed to be me passenger, not a co-pilot,” he said.

“And you are supposed to be a driver and not criticize the lady of the manor,” she countered, tossing her hair.

He chuckled. “At least I don’t have to be wearin’ a uniform. And where are we off to today, M’Lady and fair?”

Kansas City in winter is a very messy place. Rarely does it stay cold enough to grace the city’s fountains and parks with pristine white. Instead, melt usually comes on the heels of snowfall, mud is more common than towering drifts and the streets become rutted crunchy avenues of dirty slush. It took about three blocks for the Jag to be covered in a fine film of salty filth, the car’s spotless windows transformed into hazy portals to the outside world and smoky reflections of the auto’s interior. James hit the windshield washer frequently as he plowed his way toward the Plaza.

A retired firefighter turned limo driver, he jumped at the chance for a few months of full-time employment. Harrison Montgomery paid well, James had his own room, ate at least two meals a day at the house and, in his third winter after Katherine’s death, he had no one to answer to and his time was his own. With the extra cash, bone fishing off the Keys was closer every day. Plus, it was nice to have Mrs. M as a regular client. He enjoyed kidding with her and the company of a young woman was pleasant. She and his own daughter were about the same age. He hadn’t seen Mary Ruth since Katherine’s funeral.

Lucin watched the block by block progression of the city as the neighborhood gave way to smaller half-million dollar homes, shifting to old pseudo-Spanish facades on converted apartment buildings that segued into the neo-Spanish architecture of the Country Club Plaza, one of the nation’s most celebrated shopping districts. From Neiman Marcus, Eddie Bauer and Laura Ashley, to Gap Kids and the Sharper Image, to small exclusive shops and trendy restaurants, the Plaza was continuously crowded and busy. Fox jackets and mink coats shouldered along the slippery sidewalks side by side with Gore-Tex and layered sweatshirts. It was a cacophony of color and culture that cut through the swirling flakes and almost brightened the leaden overcast day, but it was still Kansas City, and Kansas City was not home. Kansas City wasn’t even close to home. It was about as far from Philadelphia as a person could get. Much farther than Lucin ever thought she’d be.

Philadelphia was a comfortable circle of friends, the right clubs, the proper charities, the correct sorority, acceptable volunteerism, and a life she’d been bred for and born to. Hers was very nearly the mantle of royalty. From her earliest memory she’d trained to fill her station. An only child, Lucin’s mission was to marry well and continue the tradition of civic responsibility and social example set by her mother, and her mother’s mother. This generational destiny was firmly in place on the day of her birth, as much a part of her as the color of her eyes. It was her duty she was told, and duty was all. The obligation of her rank hovered over her and she was never allowed to dismiss her responsibility to her family or her accountability to the convention of her status. Covered in the commitment of her class, Lucin assumed her place. Now, her place was gone. Removed from the connection to family and Philadelphia, living in an immense house in a totally unfamiliar community, seldom seeing her husband of ten years because of his career demands, and with nearly nothing to occupy her time, she found herself unencumbered by most of the social burdens she had so freely shouldered since infancy. Her world was shaken, and boredom had rattled loose.

James eased the Jag to the crest of the hill on Jarboe Street and into the parking area in front of a row of single story shops, stopping in front of one bearing a pink and green neon sign proclaiming simply “Nails!” Lucin shouldered her handbag.

“If ya find it agreeable, Ma’am,” he said, turning slightly in his seat to face her, “I’ll be runnin’ a few errands for Stephanie and return in about an hour, traffic permitting.”

“That’s fine,” she smiled. “Enjoy your shopping.”

“Sure, and ya know I will, Ma’am,” he replied. “Like root canal.”

As Lucin stepped out of the car, she noticed the shop next to “Nails!” In her other two visits to the center its windows had been covered in heavy white paper and masking tape, the contents secret from onlookers and passers-by. Today all that was gone. In the window hung a lovely sign in muted pastels that appeared to have been hand painted. It showed an elegant white crane balanced delicately on one foot. Beside the crane was a single word. “Wa”.

The bell above the door jangled as she entered the nail shop and Jolee, the owner and proprietor, came bustling up from the rear of the building.

“Good mornin’, Sweetie. I just got here myself.” She smiled, then glanced out the front windows. “Lord, look at that snow come down. Take a seat. I got coffee goin’ and I brought a Thermos of hot chocolate from home. Take your pick.”

“Hot chocolate sounds wonderful,” Lucin replied, hanging up her coat. “Perfect for a day like this.”

“Honey, there ain’t nothin’ perfect for a day like this except a good man and a good bed,” Jolee said, filling two Styrofoam cups with the pungent liquid. “They got stores full of good beds. I don’t know where the hell you find a good man,” she twinkled. “But that ain’t never stopped me from looking.”

“I have one,” Lucin quickly responded, taking an offered cup and sitting at a manicure table.

“Not sayin’ you don’t. There are one or two out there. Hell, most men are good enough if they think it’s part of foreplay, or until the sweat dries,” she laughed, pushing a strand of runaway red hair off her forehead and tugging at a bra strap.

Lucin smiled in spite of herself. “Do you really feel that way?”

Jolee sat on the other side of the table and examined her make-up in a mirror, picking at a small clot of black eyeliner. “Sweetie, I love men. Always have. I love their smell, I love their taste, I love a good growl in my ear and I even appreciate a little whisker burn in certain areas, but most of ‘em need to lose a couple of hundred pounds of ugly fat and just leave the important parts behind. I can snore all by myself!”

Lucin giggled. “Any exceptions to that?”

“Every damn one of ‘em for a little while,” Jolee laughed, pushing a soaking bowl across the table.

“I ain’t been a virgin for twenty years and my only regret is that it ain’t been twenty-one.”

“You certainly seem…liberated.”

“That ain’t Latin for easy, is it?”

Lucin blushed. “No! Oh, no. I’m sorry, that’s not what I meant at all!”

“Relax, Honey,” soothed Jolee. “I’m just givin’ you a little shit. No offense taken.”

“You just seem so self-actualized about men. So comfortable with who you are and what you want.”

“Sweetie, I figured out a long time ago that Fairy Tales are scary. Poison apples, witches spells, long sleeps, dwarves, dragons…Jesus! Who needs that shit? All of us are just what we are. Some people go through their whole lives denyin’ their natures, or worryin’ about consequences, fussin’ over some useless version of morality, or waiting for Prince Charming to show up, build a picket fence and mow the yard. Lots a women spend their days expecting something to happen instead of accepting what does. You can waste a lot of time expectin’. If you accept, then you don’t like it, it’s a hell of a lot easier to change the situation or move on, whatever works for you.”

Lucin sat quietly for a while as Jolee concentrated on her cuticles, rolling over in her mind what the other woman had said. The plain truth was, Jolee had hit a nerve or two. While Lucin was not dissatisfied about her relationship with Harrison, she was beginning to realize she was somewhat less than totally satisfied.

“You’re thinking too much,” Jolee commented.

“What?”

“You’re thinking too much.”

“What makes you say that?”

“I’m psychic.”

Lucin gave the other woman a skeptical glance.

“Your hands are tense. When you think too much, your hands get stiff and rigid. Relax, you’re making me work too hard.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.”

“Get out of your head and get into your heart. I can see in the little lines around your eyes that you’re not the happiest camper in the park. This is only your third visit here and we don’t know each other very well, but I hold hands for a living, Honey. When you hold as many hands as I do, you get to where you can read people a little.”

Lucin raised an eyebrow. “Is that right?”

“Yeah, that’s right,” answered Jolee, lifting her own eyebrow. Both women laughed.

“Okay,” Lucin said. “Analyze me. I can take it.”

“Alright. First of all, you’ve told me you’re new to Kaycee. I’d say you feel displaced, you have no friends here, you got more money than God, you don’t have anything to do, you’re bored, you live in some big old impersonal house, you lack a sense of purpose, and you ain’t gettin’ enough.”

Lucin felt her face redden.

“Gotcha, huh, Honey.”

“Can we talk about something else?”

“What else is there?”

In spite of herself, Lucin giggled.

“Don’t get me wrong,” continued Jolee. “I’m not makin’ judgments, I’m not attackin’ anybody. Your husband may be the finest man on the planet. None of what I said applies to him. This is your situation. If you don’t like it, it is up to you to change it. Start with the boredom. Volunteer at a hospital, get a job, take up a hobby, start a project. Enjoy. Find something that will charge you up and relax you at the same time. You’ll sleep better.”

“That’s your prescription, huh?”

“Yep.”

“Actually I do have sort of a project. There is a guesthouse on our property that is terribly run-down. In the old days it was probably servant’s quarters. I’ve never even been inside it. Harrison mentioned that I might re-do it.”

“Your husband’s name is Harrison?”

“Yes.”

“What do you call him?”

“Harrison.”

“Uh-huh. So why don’t you fix up the house?”

“I don’t know how he would want it.”

“What difference does that make? It’s your project. Do whatever you want. Express yourself, Sweetie. It’ll be good for you! Have some fun.”

“It would be fun.”

“You’d have something to do, a way to be creative, kick the boredom and have something of your own. Sounds great to me.” She slid back from the table. “You’re all done, unless you want some color on these talons, or American flags and rhinestones.”

Lucin smiled. “They’re fine just short and buffed.”

“No spirit of adventure,” Jolee grinned, standing up. Lucin’s cell phone rang and she spoke briefly as she retrieved her wallet from her purse and presented a credit card.

“My ride is going to be late,” she said. “Maybe I’ll go next door and look around. What do you know about the new store?”

“It’s an import business for all kinds of oriental stuff. The guy that owns it is named Tommy something. He’s Japanese or Chinese and he’ll bring a lump to your throat. He’s been in here a couple of times. Reminds me of a cat.” Jolee displayed a wicked little grin. “Now, Tommy would be a great way to spend a snowy day!”

Lucin laughed. “You’re terrible!”

“Just honest, Sweetie. Same time next week?”

“That’ll be fine.”

“Next time I see you, I want you to have a project or a hobby. Get yourself some way to pass the time and have fun.”

Slipping into her coat, Lucin looked at Jolee. “What do you do?” she asked.

Jolee smiled. “Whisker burn, Sweetie. Lots and lots of whisker burn.”

They laughed together again.

When Lucin stepped into the store next door she immediately smelled the scent of jasmine and heard the sound of dripping water. To her left, just inside the door, was a pool surrounded by rocks, a trickle of water flowing in darting pathways down one large stone, weeping onto the rippling surface. She stepped to it and stood as if transfixed, watching the play of light upon the water, catching an occasional flash of white on orange beneath the surface. She did not notice her muscles relax, her breathing slow, her pulse rate drop. She was not aware of the release of tension in her body, the escape of the mundane from her mind. There was only the water, the sound, and the jasmine. As simple as that, it claimed her.

“Pardon me.”

The words pulled her back with a small start and an almost audible rush of reality. Slightly dizzy she looked to her right. An oriental man regarded her with a level gaze from deep brown eyes. He was dressed in a black turtleneck and pleated black slacks, less than six feet tall with long hair pulled into a ponytail. Slender, he stood with a relaxed poise usually seen only among dancers.

Konnichi wa,” he said. “Hello. Welcome to my shop.” His eyes glinted with just a trace of amusement.

“Hello,” replied Lucin, fussing with her coat and purse, slightly confused and trying to focus. “I th-think your pond is lovely.”

“Domo,” he smiled. “Thank you. You’ve been standing here gazing at it for nearly twenty minutes. I thought, perhaps, I should come bring you back.”

“Twenty minutes? No!”

“Yes,” he said, his smile widening into a grin. His teeth were very white.

“Oh, I’m sorry!”

“Sorrow should have no place in this. I have gained great face. This pond is of my design and construction. Your meditation does me honor. You have paid me a wonderful compliment.”

“It truly is lovely,” Lucin replied, still reaching for her composure. “I don’t know what happened to me. I just went away, I guess.”

“In Japan we call it surrender. A person’s fate is a person’s fate and life is but an illusion.”

“You’re from Japan?”

“Yes.”

“You speak English beautifully.”

“I have lived here since I was three. I speak Japanese horribly.” He smiled. “Please excuse me. You have been so kind in enjoying my pond and I am being terribly rude. I am Tamiko Asaruka.” He bowed deeply from the waist. In reflex, Lucin bobbed a bit. It seemed to amuse him. “And you?”

“Ah, Lucin Montgomery. It’s very nice to meet you, Mr. uh…”

“Call me Tami. It’s much simpler,” he replied, extending his hand. She took it almost reluctantly, as if wary of the contact. The handshake was brief, warm and dry. She felt relieved, but the glint of humor that rose in his eyes at their touch kept her cautious.

Through the window she saw James arrive in the Jaguar. “There’s my ride,” she said, nearly grateful. “I must go. It’s been nice to meet you Mister…uh, Tami.” She started for the door and he moved beside her, his hand lightly grazing the small of her back. Warmth spread up her spine and settled at the nape of her neck. Slightly shocked, she turned to move away from him, but he stood six feet distant, the hint of a smile on his lips.

Dozo. Please visit me again, Lucin-san,” he said with a small bow. “I will count the moments until you return.”

Tamiko Asaruka watched her rush through the snow to the familiarity of her waiting car and smiled to himself.

“It is good to see you, Child,” he whispered, his eyes losing focus with memory. “You have come, and now it begins again. Yokoso oide kudasareta. Once more, welcome to my house.”


CHAPTER TWO

Nothing can be gained

Without release.

Nothing can be released

Without gain.

Karma is all.

The Jaguar fishtailed in the snow as they turned onto Ward Parkway. Lucin silently stared out the window. James watched her from the corner of his eye.

“Sure, and ya hit that seat like you’d just run a marathon,” he said.

“Are ya alright then?”

“Yes, James, I’m fine.”

“You’ll pardon me for sayin’ so, Mrs. M, but ya don’t look fine to me. Ya look like you’re glowin’ a bit.”

“Glowing?”

“That’s right. Horses sweat, men perspire, ladies glow.”

She smiled. “Thank you, James. That’s nice of you to say. I just don’t feel very lady-like right now.”

“What do ya feel like then, if ya don’t mind me askin’?”

“I don’t know. I’m kind of numb.”

“I noticed ya comin’ out of that shop next door to the nail place.”

“I stopped in to see what they had. It was…very strange.”

“Did someone treat ya badly? Do I need to go back and have a bit of a chat with anyone?”

“No,” she chuckled, “nothing like that. But it’s kind of you to offer. You would go back, wouldn’t you?”

“Of course. I’d not be takin’ kindly to anyone that brought ya grief.”

“James O’Doud, you are a fine and decent man.”

“And why wouldn’t I be?” he winked. “I’m Irish.”

Stephanie was fussing in the kitchen when Lucin entered. She retrieved a bottle of Evian from the fridge and smiled at the young woman.

“What’s for lunch?”

“Poached salmon, Ma’am, in a light mustard and white wine sauce, steamed new potatoes in dill and chives, sautéed asparagus with diced yellow pepper, and a lime sorbet for dessert, if that’s alright?”

“Alright? That’s marvelous, Stephanie.”

The young woman dimpled. “Thank you, Ma’am.”

“There’s enough for you and James?”

“Oh yes. I’ll serve James after I serve you and Mr. Montgomery. James and I will eat in the kitchen.”

“Fine. Harrison should be home in an hour or so. We’ll have lunch about one. I’m going upstairs to change.”

In her dressing room, Lucin slipped out of her loafers, jeans and sweater, put on fresh panties and a new bra, ran a brush through her nearly black hair a few times and donned a dark green lounging pant suit in raw silk. Camel colored two-inch heels and small crystal earrings were next, followed by a lipstick touch-up and a final hair fluff. Leaving through the bedroom, she stopped to look out the window and check the snowfall. When she turned around, there stood Harrison. He appeared rather disheveled.

“Hi, Luce,” he said. “You look wonderful.”

“Thank you,” she replied, moving to present her cheek for a kiss. “You’re early.”

“My plane leaves at two.”

“Your plane?”

“I’m afraid so. Back to Philadelphia,” he said, dragging a suitcase out of the closet.

“Oh, no. How long this time?”

“I really don’t know. A week, maybe more.”

“Since we moved to Kansas City, you’ve spent more time in Philadelphia than you have here!”

“Lucin, I know it. There’s just nothing we can do about it right now. Until the firm gets the new office fully established, I’m gonna be going back and forth a lot.”

“I don’t mean to complain,” she said, watching him pack, “but I thought when you made senior partner, things might even out a bit.”

“They will, Sweetheart. I promise. It’s just gonna take time. I’ll be staying at the company apartment and somebody will always know where I am if you need me. Better yet, why don’t you come along? You could see your mother, visit with some friends, make it a holiday.”

“That sounds nice, but I’m thinking about starting a project.”

“A project?” he asked, gathering up toiletries.

“Renovating the guest house.”

“Big job. You’re gonna need a hammer.”

“I’ll borrow one from James,” she smiled.

“He’d loan it to you,” Harrison chuckled, closing the suitcase and grabbing a carry-on. “Are you serious?”

“I’ve been thinking about it. With you working such long hours and being gone so much, maybe I need to get involved with something. You know, a hobby.”

“Renovating the guest house is a hobby?”

“Why not?”

“Darling, if that is what you’d like to do, I can’t think of a single reason why not.”

“Wonderful!”

“It will work well as a base for garden parties, a place for the family to stay when they visit, and it will give you something to do while I get everything squared away for the firm. I think it’s perfect for personal, business, and social reasons. Do you have any idea what you’re going to do with it?”

“Not one.”

“Well, it’s totally up to you,” he said, picking up the bags and heading for the door. Lucin followed him downstairs. “Just send the bills to the accountant and have fun. I have a cab waiting outside,” he continued, pausing to slip into his overcoat. “Sorry, Luce, gotta run.” He kissed her quickly on the lips and opened the side door.

“But what about lunch?”

“I’ll grab a sandwich at the airport. I love you.” He was gone.

“I love you, too,” she whispered.

She ate lunch in the kitchen with James and Stephanie.

It was a long afternoon. The snow stopped about three. Lucin tried Linda Howard, but couldn’t maintain interest in the plot. She attempted The Talk, but just couldn’t stand it. She even tried writing an actual letter to her mother, but could think of nothing to say. She drifted downstairs, but Stephanie and James had both gone to their rooms. She left Stephanie a note that dinner would not be necessary, trudged back upstairs, filled the tub, added bath salts, lit four or five lavender candles, tied her hair up, lowered the lights, stripped, and slid into the scented water.

She hadn’t realized she was tense until the water began to work on her. Spreading her toes, she felt pain flash through the arches of her feet. Pointing her feet, the pain moved up into her calves. Flexing her calves pushed it into her knees. Tightening her knees drove it into her thighs. She chased the muscle aches up her body for a while, amused at how the discomfort ran from her, and began to feel cool. The tub’s thermostat was on ninety-six as always, but today it didn’t seem to be enough. She turned it up to a hundred and felt the gentle vibration as the circulating pump kicked in.

Leaning back against the bath pillow she began chasing her aches and pains again, feeling herself relax as the temperature rose, watching the flickering candles through the rising steam. There was something so comforting, so familiar about it all. After a time, unnoticed, the small candles burned away, leaving only the quiet glow of a night light out of sight near the floor to manufacture shadows in the darkened room, without reflection from mirrors that had become vapor-frosted opaque panels. Only her exhaled breath touched the surface of the water. Only the slowing beat of her heart disturbed its stillness. From deep in her body, about halfway between her navel and pubis, warmth began to coalesce, a sphere of quiet energy no bigger than an egg. It came on so slowly, with such delicacy, she scarcely noticed it in her languor and did not become alarmed by the new sensation or struggle with it. Instead, something long dormant surrendered to the sphere and it began to stretch out diaphanous tendrils through her, following her neural pathways, caressing the natural power points in her body, a cobweb of contentment growing through every organ, every tissue, every part of her. Time stopped. Lost in it, she smiled.

When Lucin came back, she came back very slowly. The room gained substance from the void, appearing between her half-closed eyelids as if the walls were returning from a great distance. She could not distinguish where her body stopped and the water began. Immersed to the chin and completely relaxed, she reveled in the sensation, at length turning her head slightly to look at the clock. One-fifteen. One-fifteen? Normally she would have bolted from the tub, embarrassed for herself at the time lost, but this was far from normal. With considerable effort, she flipped the lever to drain the tub and lay there, gaining weight and substance as the water flowed away.

God, she felt heavy! It took nearly all of her strength just to sit up, the rest of it to actually get to her feet and stumble to the hook where her robe hung. As she removed it from the hanger and the material brushed against her chest, she gave a start. Her nipples were erect, engorged with blood. She rubbed the robe lightly across them. The terrycloth was velvet sandpaper, deliciously abrasive, and a chill raced up her back. She shivered from it and quickly slipped into the long robe, noticing the weight of the garment, how it lay on her skin drawing the water from her pores, how it brushed against her legs as she slowly walked into her dressing room, how the belt pushed against the small of her back.

She tried to ignore the sensations as she removed a fresh pair of pajamas from the closet shelf, but she was awash in them, the sphere in her belly a glowing marble, pushing gentle heat up behind her navel and down between her legs, creating more dampness there than the bathwater could account for. Thirsty, she crossed to the bedroom fridge and removed a bottle of water. Her first sip could not be stopped and she drank the entire container in long greedy swallows. The cold rushing into her stomach battled the warmth in her belly and she pressed her thighs firmly together, gathering the robe tightly across her breasts. Nearly panting, she sat for a moment, then turned down the bed. She dropped the robe and picked up the pajamas, then let them fall to the floor and crawled between the sheets totally nude. Wedging a pillow hard between her legs she pulled the covers over herself and was almost instantly in slumber, the sphere’s glow slowly fading away. Her sleep was dreamless and deep.

Lucin didn’t get up until almost ten. Sitting on the toilet she peered owlishly about the bathroom as if she’d never seen it before. Everything seemed excessive. The porcelain was too hard, the lights too bright, the floor too cold, the toothbrush too stiff, the toothpaste too sweet, the towel too rough. The tub called to her, ready to immerse her in delicious fluid warmth, willing to remove her weight and give her blessed freedom, waiting to carry her out of herself to who knew where. She resisted the urge, almost fleeing to the dressing room for a sweatshirt, sweat pants, sweat socks and Reeboks. She brushed her hair and pony tailed it with a scrunchy, then headed downstairs.

James lounged in the kitchen over his third cup of coffee. When she entered, he rose to his feet.

“Top of the mornin’ to ya, Mrs. M. I hope ya had a good night.”

“Good morning, James,” she mumbled. “Coffee. I smell coffee.”

“Set yourself down and I’ll get ya a cup. A big one,” he grinned, moving to the coffee pot. “Don’t be takin’ no offense, but are ya sure you’re awake?”

“No,” Lucin replied. “I’m not sure of anything except that I want cream in my coffee, and that other aroma is driving me mad. What is it?”

“Scrambled eggs.”

“That’s it? Just scrambled eggs?”

“Sure and that’s all. Three eggs, a bit of cream, a touch of pepper, a dash of paprika, a little cheddar cheese, some dill, a modicum of diced onion, a drop or two of malt vinegar, and a sprinkle of sea salt. Stephanie has gone shopping, so I made myself a bite of breakfast.” He placed the coffee in front of her. “Could I be fixin’ a bit of nourishment for herself this mornin’?”

“God, yes! James, please and thank you! It sounds wonderful.”

“Would ya be wantin’ a lovely bagel and some blueberry jam with that today,” he asked, opening the refrigerator.

Lucin smiled. “Marry me,” she said.

“As sweet as the offer is, it’s not necessary. I’ll break your fast, no strings attached. I miss the days when I did this for my darlin’ Mary Ruth. It’s an artist with an egg I am and I enjoy it, ya know.”

“Did you make the coffee too?”

“Sure.”

“Where’d you get it? It tastes marvelous!”

“It’s the blend ya keep in the pantry, same as always.”

“What?”

“That’s right,” he said, putting a skillet on the stove to heat and adding a dollop of butter. “Took it right off the shelf myself.”

“It tastes different.”

“Maybe it’s not the coffee, Ma’am. Maybe it’s you that’s a bit different.”

“Me?”

“Sure.”

“How am I different?”

“Well, ya never asked me to marry ya before.”

She laughed. “That’s certainly true,” she said, blushing slightly.

“Now don’t be getting’ all self-conscious, M’Lady and fair. There are other things, too. Ya never eat breakfast, just that canned drink of yours and black coffee. Ya never come downstairs in sweat clothes, I’ve never seen your hair in a ponytail before, and you’re not wearin’ any make-up. Not even lipstick.”

“Wow.”

“I don’t hear ya say ‘wow’ a lot, either. It seems like to me, that you’re more casual this mornin’, less, uh…”

“Anal?”

James smiled. “Rigid,” he said, adding whipped eggs to the pan.

She returned his smile. “Rigid will do, James.”

“So, if ya don’t mind me askin’, what brought all this about now?”

“It sorta started yesterday at the nail shop.” She paused and thought for a moment. “James, will you do me a favor?”

“Without a doubt.”

“After breakfast, will you go with me to look over the guest house?”

“That I will.”

“Thank you. We can talk more freely then.”

“I don’t want ya thinkin’ that I’m tryin’ to pry, Ma’am.”

“I don’t. I think you care.”

“Then you’d be right.”

“Will you do me another favor?”

“Sure.”

“Will you not mention anything to anybody about my, uh…change?”

“Mum’s the word.”

“Good,” she said, “because it’s probably going to get worse.”

“Won’t that be darlin’, now?”

The eggs were perfect.

Early afternoon Lucin and James walked through the rapidly melting snow to the guesthouse. The main residence, a six thousand square foot, two and a half story stone structure, faced west. Directly behind and east of it, converted from a two-story stable, was the garage. East of the garage about a hundred and fifty feet, and separated from the main property by a ring of elm trees, was what had originally been servant’s quarters. It was a low, shallow-roofed building sided in weathered lapped boards with both a southern entrance and a northern entrance. James pushed open the creaking south door and they stepped inside.

The smell of mildew was everywhere. Dust covered odds and ends sat about the living room. In addition to the living area, there were two small bedrooms, a tiny kitchen, and a cramped bathroom, complete with an ancient claw-footed tub. Blinds had fallen from window frames, dead flies littered the sills, paper peeled from the walls, paint flaked from the wainscoting, and grime covered the battered hardwood floor.

“And wouldn’t this be a handyman’s delight?” James muttered as he poked about. “This place looks like it’s been empty for a thousand years.”

Lucin grinned. “It’s perfect!”

“Have ya lost your mind, then? It’s perfect alright. A perfect mess!”

Undaunted, Lucin’s grin remained intact. “Let’s check out the other side.”

“Saints, preserve us.”

The north side of the structure was a mirror image of the south. The roof leaked over both bedrooms and down the walls, separating the old horsehair plaster from the lath that supported it, and badly rotting the floorboards. In the bathroom, James found another piece of water damage from a leaking stool.

“Sweet Jesus,” he said. “The water’s on.”

“What’s the matter?” asked Lucin, coming in from the living area.

“Ya have some plumbin’ problems too. I don’t think anybody bothered to shut off the water. The valve is probably up at the main house. It’s a real can a worms you’re openin’ here.”

“What would you do with the place?”

“Pay up the insurance and burn it.”

“Let’s look outside,” she smiled.

“Well, we’ve come this far.”

They prowled through the slush as James looked the place over.

“It could be worse,” he observed.

“Really?”

“It could be bigger.”

“James!”

He grinned at her. “Now, don’t take this the wrong way, Ma’am. I sometimes forget that expense is not a consideration with you. With enough money there are always possibilities. If the structure is sound, all that mess inside is fixable. What ya need to do is get somebody in here who knows more about it than I do.”

“Do you know somebody?”

“Sure.”

“Will you tell me who, or contact them for me?”

“That I will.”

“Thank you James, I mean it.”

“I know ya do.”

On the west side of the building, an area screened from the main house by a line of trees about fifty feet from the guesthouse, they encountered an old cobblestone patio. As James started across it, a cobble wobbled under his foot, sank into the earth and left him ankle deep in mud. “Mathew, Mark, Luke and John!” he grumbled, “I’m captured by quagmire. Stay back.” He stamped vigorously on a few of the cobblestones, with the same result.

“That’s not good,” he muttered.

“What’s the matter?”

“Five’ll get ya ten the water line from the house runs right under these cobbles. Five’ll get ya twenty there’s a rupture in the line someplace under the stones. I saw a shut-off in the first bathroom out here. That’ll do us no good. If there’s not a shut-off in the main house, this is like leavin’ a hose on twenty-four hours a day. Thousands and thousands of gallons will be collectin’ underground. The freezin’ and thawin’ must have been too much for the pipes. I’ll check for a shut-off. If I can’t find one, I’ll have to call somebody today. We can’t let this go on.”

“Can it be fixed?”

“Oh, sure. I can’t imagine there are any plumbing diagrams available. They’ll have to dig out this whole cobbled area, find the break in the line and cap it. The plumbing and all these stones would have to be replaced anyway. Now it will just be sooner instead of later.”

Lucin pondered the house and the cobbles for a moment. “James, will you be my foreman?”

“What?”

“Will you oversee the rebuilding of this place? The structural stuff?”

“Ma’am, this’ll take months! I stop workin’ here in another three weeks or so.”

“Not if you want to stay.”

“What, continue to drive you around and watch over this place?”

“More watching than driving. Fifty dollar a week raise.”

“I’m goin’ fishing.”

“For how long?”

“Ten days.”

“When?”

“May.”

“Where?”

“Florida.”

“It’s on me.”

“What?”

“Consider it a bonus for taking the job.”

“Are ya serious then?”

“Absolutely.”

“I’ve lost my mind, Ma’am, but I’ll do it.”

“That’s wonderful!” she beamed, impulsively bouncing up to kiss him on the cheek. James reddened.

“Sure, and that beats a stob in the eye with a sharp stick,” he grinned.

“Just one more thing,” she said, fighting back her own embarrassment. “When we’re alone, stop calling me Ma’am.”

“Ah, sure, me darling’ Lucille,” he chuckled in deep brogue. “What would ye be havin’ me call ya then?”

At four o’clock that afternoon Lucin sat across the kitchen table from James as he talked on the phone.

“Brian, me darlin’, it’s not a big job, just an underground leak beside a house. A few cobbles removed, a little dirt dug out, a cap put on, a couple of your lads will have it done long before lunch. I understand ya got commitments, but a big corporate job like that won’t even miss a tiny backhoe and two men…plus Laddie-Buck, you’d be doin’ James Mathew O’Doud himself a good turn. Wouldn’t that make your old daddy proud? I know he’s dead, ya dummy, I helped carry his box! That don’t mean he’s not up there lookin’ down on ye, waitin’ ta see if you’ll be doin’ the right thing, ya know? Your father’s eyes are on ye, Brian, me fair, as sure as our Lord hung bleedin’ on the hill at Calvary. How can ye say no to me, a man that’s been like an uncle to ye your whole life, when himself is peerin’ at ye like a hawk from behind them pearly gates? It’s a fine son ye are, sweet Brian, as true and good as a man can be! Aye, that’s good. Sure, and I’ll be here meself, waitin’ to direct the diggin’ at the proper place. Fine. Regards to your saintly mother and your sister Carmen. Bye.”

Lucin was smiling at him and shaking her head. “I don’t know which was worse,” she said, “the accent or the blarney.”

“If you’re lookin’ for a handle on an Irish Catholic, always grab for the guilt. Help will be here at seven in the mornin’.”


CHAPTER THREE

Visions come

As if in slumber.

More than dreams,

Faint in

Wakeful remembrance.

Lucin ate a light dinner and went upstairs early, excited about the guesthouse project. James, not one to procrastinate, already had contacted a remodeling contractor to come by the next afternoon to look over the structure and offer advice about its condition. At her desk, Lucin spent the next two hours doodling on graph paper, sketching out what she remembered of the building, moving walls, expanding areas, playing with what it was and what it might become. She had been involved in projects with several decorators over the years, but never with something as sweeping as actual construction. In some respects, her enthusiasm frightened her, but it was pleasant fright, like the stomach tingle that comes from traveling too fast over a hilly country road.

At around eight she set the thermostat to ninety-six degrees and filled the tub. Slightly wary, she left all the bathroom lights on high, grabbed three or four home and garden type magazines and eased into the soothing water. Deliberately concentrating on the books, Lucin slowly began to relax as she realized there were no unusual sensations, no sleepiness, no darkening surroundings or receding walls. An hour and a half later, after finding nothing in the magazines that inspired her, she left both them and the tub, slipped into a skiing coverall and boots, and went outside to look at the guesthouse.

Even with a completely clear sky, the temperature remained slightly above freezing and Lucin was quite comfortable as she walked across the lawn, past the garage, toward the stand of trees. A nearly full moon brightened the occasional residual patch of snow and the swishing friction of the ski-suit added a rhythmic counterpoint to the subtle thud of her boot heels in the grass. She carried with her a flashlight and a folded garbage bag. The light to investigate the interior of the building, the bag to collect anything she might want to take back to the house. There was little wind. With every second or third step she walked through the moon-whitened vapor of her breath. Lucin smiled. Relaxed from her bath and nude under her coverall, she moved through a nearly perfect night. As she cleared the elms she saw the water.

The cobbled area beside the old servant’s quarters was covered in a pool. About twenty feet across and roughly circular in shape, water had seeped up through the earth filling the slight depression as the dense stones pushed their way down into the sodden dirt. In the light of day it would have been seen for what it was, little more than an overgrown mud puddle, but at night, especially this night, under the crystal sky and immense moon, the puddle was a miracle. Its luminescent surface shimmered slightly, moonshadow from crisp winter elm branches traced their leafless webs upon the ground and moonlight became dancing silver, almost too bright for the night. Lucin’s breath caught in her throat and she took a half step to keep her balance. Nearly mesmerized, she dropped the garbage bag to the ground and sat upon it cross-legged, watching the water.

The rippling interplay of light and dark performed for her. Motes of moonlight, fallen from limitless height, flickered and frolicked above deceptive depths, and all was reflected in her eyes. The darkness pulled back from expanding luminescence as the refracted slivers of silver filled her vision, her mind, her being. A sigh came from within and without her as she released the here and now.

With the freedom of that release, the water lifted her and the moon carried her away.

In an hour, a day, a year, a century, it left her as it had come, now kneeling and watching the gentle flicker of water on a moonlight night, sitting on her heels by a pond. Moving her eyes from the water she saw the delicate bridge extending to the tiny island in the middle of the pool, the sentinel stones holding the bridge in place, the sleeping hyacinth and pine, the exquisite cherry and dwarf plum trees, the carefully raked path, the artful bamboo fencing, the elegant tea house across the pond, all made larger and more distant by darkness and mysterious moonglow. The planking on which she sat trembled from footfalls and she turned to see the Mama-san striding in her direction, an oil lamp in her hand. Dressed in a night kimono of plain white cotton, her hair held from total disarray by pins, the woman smiled down at her.

“Child, what are you doing? Why are you not in the sleeping chamber? You are not dressed for such a cool night and you should have been asleep three sticks ago!”

Gomen nasai, so sorry, Mama-san. I only came out to watch the moon-water for a while. It is very beautiful, neh?”

“Yes, it is and so are you, too beautiful to become old and wrinkled at age eight. I would have to give you to the eta if you were old and wrinkled. They could teach you to skin cats. Would you like to learn to skin cats?”

Iye, no, Mama-san. I am too pretty to learn anything from the eta,” smiled the child. “I will grow to be lovely and learn from you.”

“And what will you learn from me?”

“I will learn to make music and sing and dance and tell stories. And I will learn the honorable art of pillowing and how to make men happy in their Peerless Parts with my Vermilion Chamber.”

The older woman laughed. “Yes, you shall, Child. That is why I paid your father such an outrageous sum for you. You will learn all those things and much more. But if you are to learn, you must first be obedient, neh?”

Hai, Mama-san. I must be obedient.”

“And why must you be obedient?”

“It is my duty, Mama-san.”

Hai! Duty is everything, Child. Your duty to me, a wife’s duty to her husband, a husband’s duty to his lord, the lord’s duty to the emperor. All life is duty, is it not?”

“All of life is duty, Mama-san.”

“Then will you stop coming out here and sitting all night? It makes you too sleepy to do your chores.”

“I will try, Mama-san, but it is so lovely here.”

“I do not usually bargain with my property, Child, but you are exceptional and show such promise, I will bargain with you. Will you strike a bargain with me?”

Hai, Mama-san, dozo. Please.”

“Very well,” the old woman smiled indulgently, “here is my bargain. Since you love to sit in the garden and watch the moon on the water, I will allow you to do so one night each week, and I will sit with you and teach you to drink tea from an empty cup. Is that fair?”

“Yes! Oh, very yes!” beamed the child.

“Good! Then we have struck our bargain. From this moment you and I begin again. For you to become a courtesan of the first rank, which is the reason I brought you here, you can no longer be who you once were. Only the most beautiful lilies bloom on the pond at night. From this night forward you will be called Moon Blossom. Is that agreeable with you?”

Arigato goziemashita, Mama-san! Thank you, thank you! I am in your debt!”

“A debt that will reward me handsomely, after you learn about singing, dancing, the art of pillowing, Beauteous Barbs and Golden Gullies, neh?”

Hai! Arigato, Mama-sama!”

“And eventually, Moon Blossom, it is I who will be in your debt.”

Wakarimasen, Mama-san. I don’t understand.”

“You will, Child. You will,” said the old woman. She stood and bowed formally to the young girl. “Yokoso oide kudasareta, Moon Blossom. Welcome to my house.”

The child stood and returned the formal bow. “Domo arigato, Mama-san. Thank you.”

Ichi ban, Blossom-san. Very good. Now, enjoy your time in the garden for no more than another stick, then do your duty and go to bed, or I shall call the eta to come take you away.” The woman stalked off into the night muttering about ungrateful children.

Moon Blossom returned her gaze to the moonlight on the water, full of joy to have begun her new life of learning all about singing, dancing, pillowing, Beauteous Barbs and Golden Gullies. Eventually the flickering motes rose from the water to engulfed her and lift her up. When she again returned to herself, she was sitting cross-legged, looking at a large mud puddle lightly coated with ice, shivering from the cold with legs that felt like wood. Carefully Lucin eased her numb limbs out in front of her and wiggled her bottom on the garbage bag. Groaning with pain, she attempted to rub some circulation back into her knees and calves while even more cold crept up through the seat of her ski-suit. After a time, she creaked to her feet and stood rubbing her backside.

“Golden Gully, my ice-covered ass!” she muttered to the night. “Frozen gully is more like it!”

Slightly embarrassed at her vocabulary and laughing at her choice of words, she limped off in the dark, through the trees and toward the house. By the time she reached her room, most of what occurred by the puddle had retreated from her conscious mind. A hot shower steamed warmth back into her bottom and legs and she crawled into bed, barely awake. The next morning she opened her eyes to again find herself sleeping nude, with a pillow high between her thighs and thoughts of Peerless Parts and Vermilion Chambers, Beauteous Barbs and Golden Gullies dancing in her head.

“What?” she asked aloud, groggy and confused, as she levered herself up on one arm. Her weight shifted on the pillow and a ricochet of pleasure, a simultaneous itch and scratch flashed between her legs.

“Oh!” she said, and fell back to her side, opening her thighs and pulling the pillow even higher. Another flash. “Uuuh.” Sleep tugged at her, but so did the pillow. Only semi-aware of her actions, she reached behind her with one hand to hold it firmly against her bottom, while she held a corner of it in front of her and pulled upward, unconsciously finding a rhythm of movement between her and the silk-covered goose down. Not fully awake and not completely asleep, freed momentarily of inhibitions, deliciously female and delightfully independent, with shadowy thoughts of barbs and gullies manifesting in her semi-conscious mind, she slid on the slick silk, seeking only sensation. Grunting, as she pulled upward on the pillowcase, her right hand grazed her breast and she sought its rapidly hardening peak.

“Jesus,” she murmured, moistening her lips, and then again, “Jesus!” as she jerked into total wakefulness. Puritan embarrassment slapped through her and she tore herself away from both the pillow and the moment, flopping to her back and trembling. Independent of her will, her hands sought more pleasure and she rebuffed them, lurching from the bed and striding toward her dressing room, uncertain of her feet, uncertain in her mind. Running her fingers through her hair to free some tangles and keep her hands busy, she grabbed the first jeans she saw, a rather snug pair of Levis, and forced them up over her hips without underwear. She dropped a heavy cable-knit sweater over her head, nearly gasping as it slid downward across her nipples, stuck her sockless feet into the Gucci loafers, quickly tied her hair back and stumbled down the stairs and into the kitchen. Stephanie was unloading the dishwasher. James sat at the table, coffee cup in hand.

“Good morning,” Lucin blurted.

“Good morning, Ma’am,” said Stephanie. “If you don’t need me right now, Miz Montgomery, I’m going to do some laundry.”

“That’s fine, Stephanie.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” the young woman replied and went down the basement stairs.

Lucin leaned on the cabinet with one hand and poured coffee with the other, sloshing some on the counter. She nearly dropped the container of cream lifting it from the fridge and finally settled heavily into a chair across from James, crossed her legs and began to bob her foot rather violently up and down, her arms folded across her chest. He looked at her and grinned.

“Top of the morning, Lucille,” he said.

“Hello, James,” she replied, unsuccessfully attempting to control her foot.

“Are ya alright, then?”

“Of course I’m alright. Why wouldn’t I be alright?”

“I don’t know, Ma’am.”

“Well, I am. What makes you think I’m not alright?”

“Experience.”

“Experience?”

“Yes, Ma’am,” he twinkled. “In my experience there are three main reasons a woman pump-handles her foot and leg like that.” Lucin instantly forced herself to stop. “Especially if she has her arms crossed up real tight like you do.” She willfully lowered her arms, glad for the thickness of the heavy sweater. “She’s either very angry or very worried, or . . .”

“Or?” asked Lucin, sipping coffee as casually as she could.

“Or,” James continued, “it’s something’ of a much more personal and private nature, Ma’am.”

“I asked you to stop calling me Ma’am.”

“Irritation is another symptom too,” he chuckled. “The pump’s started up again.”

Lucin looked down to see her leg bouncing of its own accord. She thrust her feet flat on the floor. James stood up.

“I’m goin’ out ta look over what the boys are doin’ with their backhoe,” said James, lifting his coat from the chair back and heading for the door. He stopped and looked at Lucin.

“Lucille, me Darlin’,” he said, unable to contain his grin, “they recommend cold showers for problems such as these, but I’ve never found them to be an effective treatment, myself.”

Her mouth open, she watched him leave before she could think of anything to say.

Lucin sat in the kitchen feeling nearly as empty as it was, nothing inside her but hard surfaces, tile and glass.

What was going on? The lost time in the tub, the lost time sitting out in the middle of the yard in the middle of the night…sleeping in the nude and aroused! Straddling her pillow like some…like some…could she talk to Jolee about this? No, that would be too embarrassing. Not that Jolee wouldn’t understand. From the way the woman talked, she probably walked around wet most of the time any way. God! Where were these thoughts coming from? And James! He knew! From the minute she walked into the kitchen, he knew! In his way, he even told her he knew. He thought it was amusing! His eyes were laughing at her. Hmmm. Maybe knowing she was aroused, excited him. He was a comfortably attractive man, a little overweight, nearing sixty, but very male…Jesus! What was she doing? Sitting in the kitchen, thinking about James, her foot bobbing away with a mind of its own, thighs clamped together, that persistent little need growing between her legs, a lump growing deep in her throat. Stop it. Just stop it! Get out of these tight jeans, get into some underwear, for God’s sake, and get busy doing something!

Maybe she could talk to James.

The end result was the elimination of the entire cobblestone patio, down to about twenty inches below ground level, with the middle one-third of the area dug out to nearly forty inches deep. A trench led from that to the east side of the garage to allow the installation of a new water line from the shut-off valve one of the workmen had found inside the structure. The original dig had consisted of only the very deepest part, but James was a very persuasive man. The cobblestones were piled between the excavation and the tree line, the majority of the dirt on the north side of the hole.

“Well, there you are, Mr. O’Doud,” said the backhoe operator. “All loaded up. We’ll be goin’ now.”

“Sure, and it’s a grand job you boys did, especially workin’ through your lunch hour and all. I’m sure the Missus will be more than grateful and reward ya in kind.”

“You have our names.”

“Aye, Lad. Never fear, I’ll be in touch with ya.” He stood and watched the truck and backhoe rumble off down the road.

“All that digging for one broken waterline?”

He turned to see Lucin standing behind him, wearing a dark blue Polartec bodysuit and a black leather car coat. Her hair was down and she’d applied make-up. She seemed to be holding herself a little distant.

“Only if ya want to get rid of all the cobbles and get the site ready for a new patio or party area. I thought perhaps it would make some options available to ya. Give you some choices.”

“That’s very thoughtful of you, James.”

“That it is. It seemed to me you could use a little thoughtfulness.”

Instantly her eyes filled with tears. “I need something, maybe just to talk.”

“I’ve got a man inside the place now, poking’ around to see how bad it is. As soon as he’s done, I’m all ears if ya need ‘em and all yours if ya need me.” At that instant a short, redheaded, middle aged man walked out of the building.

“Jimmy me boy,” he shouted. “I just got a call they need me over at the office. I’ll have it on paper for ya tomorrow. It’s a handyman’s delight, no doubt about that, but I think we can save the old girl.” He grinned. “Drop by after lunch and I’ll give ya the good and bad news.”

“Michael, old lad, ‘tis sweet and fair ya are! I’ll be castin’ me eyes on your lovely face tomorrow.” The man chuckled and began walking off the property to the street on the back side.

James looked at Lucin and found she was grinning at him. “It’s me heritage,” he admitted sheepishly. “You get a couple of us old lads together and we talk like bloomin’ idiots. It’s almost two, have ya had lunch?”

“No.”

“Me neither. Why don’t we go to Clancy’s, grab a corned beef sandwich and a corner table, drink a black and tan or two, and see what we can do to help you feel better?”

“That sounds wonderful,” Lucin smiled.

“Ah, and sure it is, Lucille me darling’. It’s one of the most wonderful things in the world.”

Clancy’s was nearly empty after lunch rush, except for a few die-hards with their feet welded to the brass rail. James led Lucin to a booth at the rear of the upper level. He lit a candle to push the gloom back a bit and create an area of intimacy. A blond, slightly heavy-set waitress slugged up the five stairs to their location. Her forty year old face lit up and became quite pretty when she spied who was sitting in such an out of the way location.

“Jimmy! It’s fine to see ya! I thought maybe the sheriff finally caught up with ya.” She put her hand on his shoulder, and he rubbed her back briefly in greeting.

“Connie, me sweetheart. Lovely as ever.”

Connie looked at Lucin with appraising eyes and an open smile. “Who’s this, then?”

“Constance, I’d like to present me niece, Lucille. Lucille, this is the light of me life, Constance.”

Connie’s smile became a grin. “I didn’t know Jimmy had a niece named Lucille,” she said.

Lucin smiled. “Neither did I,” she said. “James and I are friends. We needed a place to talk.”

“He’s good at that. As of now, this section is closed. What can I bring ya?”


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