Melly would have liked to escape into the house as soon as all arrived back at Stillwater, but it took her longer to park than it did the far more experienced Ian. By the time she had settled the Morgan in the old carriage house, he and Alys were lingering at the big doors, waiting for her and Malcolm. Malcolm was clearly pleased to be drawn into conversation, and Melly hovered by his side for a few moments, adjusting her hat, polishing her sunglasses, hoping that he would finish up soon. The stresses of driving, compounded with the oppressive blanket of humidity, had exhausted her. She craved the quiet and predictability of the cool basement family room, where she could spend peaceful evenings listening to Cheryl’s blissful canine patter or Richard and Malcolm discussing the operating differences between Stillwater and the other American Cane plantations Richard had visited on various consulting trips. It was never out of the realm of probability that Esther might drop in of an evening and solve the world’s problems to her satisfaction, but even Esther was part of a familiar continuum. Alys and Ian were “other”, and Melly, if she was honest with herself, preferred that they stay that way.
If this state of mind was obvious to Ian, he chose to overlook it.
“So,” he said, turning up beside Melly just as she’d decided to leave Malcolm to it and head inside herself. “What do you hear from Sophia and Chris these days? Did they finally agree on living at Hazelwood? I don’t think I’ll ever forget the name of that house as long as I live, because his magic memory technique is seared in my mind. Every tree I see reminds me of Hazelwood, or at least of Chris trying to remember Hazelwood.”
“Chris and Sophia are still in Baton Rouge,” said Melly politely. Ian had somehow maneuvered between her and the most direct path to the door, and now he stood just one step too close to Melly. The smell of cut grass and hot pavement, usually so reminiscent of sweetly lazy afternoons, was heavy and cloying in the air. She glanced off toward the house. Her head ached and she longed to be left alone.
“I really think you were the hero of the whole movie.” He was not going to leave her alone. “You worked so hard with Chris to teach him those four simple lines. You were so sweet and patient, I think you could have managed to teach almost anyone who wasn’t as agonizingly stupid as he was. I know I could have used help like yours on some of my projects.”
“I barely did anything.” Melly was getting tired of being polite to him. How was it that he couldn’t tell how little she wanted to talk to him?
“Don’t you wish we could go back that time again?” His voice was low and confidential, transmuting “that time” into some precious private experience the two of them had shared. “I can’t remember when I spent a happier summer.” Ian happily justifying blackface; Ian happily breaking into Chris’s house with Chris’s fiancee. “It was too bad we were… interrupted, I guess you’d say, just when we were so close to finishing the whole thing.” Ian and Sophia behind the curtain; Melly interrupting something before it was finished. “I bet if you’d had control of the weather, we might have had a hurricane hit the West Indies in March. Oh, not a bad one!” His blue eyes, Alys’s eyes, crinkled in his innocent, charming face. “Just enough to keep planes grounded until spring break was over, maybe.”
Melly’s head throbbed, her irritation pounding behind her brows. How much more obvious could her scowl be? Was he completely blind? She put her hand up to press her temple and realized that she was still wearing her big hat and sunglasses. And he was still talking at her — did he ever intend to shut up?
“Then you wouldn’t have been robbed of your scene.”
“Robbed of my scene?” She pulled off her hat and sunglasses and shook the loose dark hair back out of her face. Blazing hazel eyes glared into his startled blue eyes, Alys’s eyes. Her pent-up outrage at his behavior of the afternoon and at his remembered licenses wound her voice into a tight spiral of anger. “If I’d had control of anything, I would have brought back Mr. Spencer at the beginning of spring break and prevented the whole spectacle in the first place. I was glad he came back when he did. It had gone too far.”
He seemed ready to say something, but Melly pushed her sunglasses on, jerked her hat back down, and stalked to the back door. Inside, she stood trembling slightly in the blessed dim coolness and tried to remember if she’d ever told anyone off before in her life. It was a liberating, sickening feeling. She didn’t think she ever wanted to do it again. The solution was simple: she would speak as little as possible to Ian Winter in the time he stayed at Stillwater, and then she could be sure of keeping her temper and her manners in check.
She glanced out the window to see Malcolm and Alys still in animated discussion, oblivious to anything that had passed between her and Ian. Malcolm was not coming in any time soon, it seemed, and neither was Alys going to the cottage. They seemed perfectly willing stand out there forever, the curl of Alys’s hair growing more exquisite in the humidity and the blue of her eyes deepening as the evening fell. Malcolm’s grin flashed and brightened his face, and Melly sighed. He had never smiled at her like that.
But someone else was smiling at her. Ian had caught sight of her at the window and was giving her an flippant nod. The very sight of him made Melly’s ire rise, and she could only find vent for it in one of Jean Arceneaux’s favorite expressions.
“Coonass,” she muttered, and yanked the curtain closed.