I am sorry for the long Stillwater lag. I'm hoping to use August to finish it -- there can't be more than 20,000-30,000 words left to go. This was certainly a project in which I bit off more than I could chew in one month of NaNo!
But some people do catch colds in August. Malcolm, with his years of experience of Melly’s fragile health, was right. That evening she was seized with the sniffles, which progressed quickly into a full-fledged summer cold.
Of all forms of petty illness, the summer cold is the most pathetic. In the winter, there is a romance to bundling up in the blankets, inhaling the steam of a hot drink, greeting ministering snow angels with a sad wave of a tissue. But there is no dignity in the summer cold: streaming nose, streaming eyes, streaming face, damp lank hair, and the inelegant sprawl of a sufferer too sweaty to want any one limb to touch another. August is not kind to the nasally inflicted. Melly was miserable.
When the boys roared back into Stillwater on Monday afternoon, her spirits were not revived. The trip had apparently been a roaring success, and anecdotes were flying with the speed of a private jet. Rene had told Carson Winter what, and Winter had not only listened, he’d invited people over and had Rene do it again. Ian and Rene reenacted these scenes with great zest at Stillwater. Malcolm and Richard listened with delight, and Esther with endurance, but Melly was beset with snuffles of disappointment. She’d been looking forward to more time with Rene, now that the demands of the ball had been satisfied. He, however, was out of time. Zipping up to New York City had taxed his schedule to the breaking point. Now all he could do was turn around almost immediately and speed back up to Baton Rouge. She watched him peel out of the driveway — Rene never did anything at a leisurely pace — and hoped that her red eyes would be mistaken for ravages of the cold.
“Poor Melly,” said a voice close by her side. She jumped to discover Ian at her elbow, gazing at her with the understanding expression of one who saw through her pretense but would never, never tell. Alys’s insinuations about Ian’s attentions to her flooded back into her mind, and she wondered if he was trying to start something at this moment. It seemed unfair of him to bother her right now; she reflected bitterly that if he had any sympathy for her, he would leave her to her thoughts of Rene.
As if on cue Ian said, “I’m sorry to steal away all your time with your brother. He told me how hard you’d take it that he had to leave right away. I hope I can do something to make it up to you.”
Melly’s immediate instinct was to say that he could make it up by going back to New York himself, but no, she would not be ungrateful to someone who had just been so generous to Rene. She took a step away from him and managed a smile with just the right amount of watery politeness.
“That’s bery kind ob you,” she said, and walked back to the house. After a moment she was relieved to hear his footsteps retreating toward the cottage. Something about his manner had made her fear he would follow her, but perhaps he was, underneath it all, a gentleman at heart and would not intrude where he could tell he was not wanted.
Ian watched Melly’s long dark braid sway against her back with each step she took away from him. Her hair was deliciously tousled from her morning spent propped up with pillows in bed, little sinuous tendrils of hair unwinding on her neck and laying loose on her shoulders, an enticing change from her usual neat appearance. There was something in her deliberate indifference to him that was so different from other women he’d known. Most of them would have seized any chance to prolong a conversation, boring him with increasingly stale flirtations as he sought a chance to escape. But Melly always seemed to know when to walk away. She never promised more, which left him wanting more. He found the novelty of her resistance fascinating.
It was strange that such a quiet, gentle girl could ensnare him. He had always thought of himself as attracted to a more experienced sort of woman, one who could give as good as she got. Melly never gave as good as she got; she gave more good. She was patient and kind. There was nothing desperate or tired about her; she was fresh and fine and lovely, pure and distant as the remote mountain snow. He would be happy just to be near her. He needed her near him. He would sweep her away from her humble life here and take to New York and clothe her in the most expensively simple dresses and furnish her an shrine of exquisite luxury, a fitting jewel box for his rarest treasure.
And when he had her, what could he not do? Her innocence and goodness would rub off on him. He would bid farewell to sordid Hollywood parties and hangovers and morning-afters. His artistic vision would be newly baptized; he would see the world through clearer eyes. He focused his Melly-glasses on the future and images snapped into view: Melly walking down the red carpet with him, resplendent like a small, bright star; Melly gazing at him with solemn but rapt admiration while he spoke to the boards of charitable foundations; Melly, dainty and neat in an apron, serving at a soup kitchen she’d insisted he fund, handing out bread with her own pretty hands; Melly glowing at his side as he accepted an honorary degree for establishing the Melusine Arceneaux scholarship for talented girls. And all the other women he’d known, the jaded society girls and the hard-eyed climbers and the easy college sluts, would look up in envy at his beautiful Melly and realize to their shame what kind of woman it took to win the heart of Ian Winter…
“Are you ever going to come in?”
Alys was standing at his elbow, surveying him with some bemusement, and he jumped as Melly had jumped earlier at his intrusion into her thoughts.
“You’ve been standing here for a while, just looking at nothing. What, has Stillwater finally managed to work up a ghost for you?”
“No, an angel.”
She was considerate. “Let’s get you out of the sun. It’s not good for you. Come in and lay down.”
“I’m serious,” he insisted, as she guided him into the cottage. “Alys. I am taking Melly Arceneaux back to New York with me.”
Alys stopped in the doorway and stared at him. “Melly wants to go to New York?”
“She doesn’t know yet.”
Stopping in the middle of a conversation here is an attempt to hold myself accountable.