The Ideal Man (Buchanan-Renard 9)

Page 11

When Ellie was discharged from the hospital, her mother went with her to the Wheatleys and stayed until Ellie had regained some of her strength and had become comfortable with her new guardians. Over the next couple of years Ellie was allowed to come home for brief visits, but that happened only after her parents were assured that Patterson was not free. Although the cost of the flights was a financial burden, it was well worth having their daughter with them. Things changed dramatically, however, when Patterson was moved to yet another private institution and given weekend passes. That meant Ellie had to stay away.
Her father didn’t want her to feel isolated from the family, and for several years he made it a point to talk to her every single day. So did her mother. Ava and Annie kept in contact by e-mail and text.
Eventually, life and education got in the way. Ellie chose trauma medicine as her vocation, which meant endless hours at the hospital. It wasn’t possible to have long chats anymore. Just a quick hello, love you, and good-bye. For Ellie, that was enough.
She loved her family and normally would jump at the chance to be with them again, but going home was going to feel different this time. After the debacle of her last visit, she didn’t know what she would be facing. Would they expect her to be cheerful and excited to be celebrating the happiest day in her sister’s life?
And what about Patterson? He was always in the back of her mind. Was he looking for her? Would he show up one day? Now that he had vanished, Ellie’s fear was magnified. Where was he? And what was he planning?
Ellie called her parents to let them know she would be home Tuesday evening. Her father wanted to pick her up at the airport, but she insisted on renting a car so she wouldn’t be dependent on anyone for rides. She didn’t tell him she also wanted to be able to get away in a hurry if she needed to.
Because she was able to catch an earlier flight, she landed ahead of schedule and was in her rental car and on her way to Winston Falls shortly after noon. It was a pretty drive. Two-thirds of it was on a four-lane highway, and she made quick time. The rest of the trip was on a paved two-lane road that curved through the countryside. There were several steep turns as the road wound through the hills, and very few signs. On either side of the road were thick shrubs and trees, and in some spots wilting but still colorful wildflowers.
Ellie made sure her rental car had GPS because she didn’t know the route all that well. Although she had been home many times, her father had done all the driving, and she really hadn’t paid much attention to roads and turns.
At times she felt as though she were driving through a forest. Branches from some of the trees reached over the road, blocking the sun. It was a bit eerie, she thought, and foreboding. She opened her window to let some fresh air in and immediately felt the thick humidity pour over her face. With it came the heavy smell of the earth and a tinge of claustrophobia. She recognized the side road that led to the waterfall and was tempted to turn off, but she quickly rejected the idea. As she recalled, the natural phenomenon that gave her town its name was about a half mile off the beaten path, and she would have to walk that distance to get to it. Maybe another day, she thought.
The town came into view, and the first sign she saw was the one pointing the way to the Winston Falls Hospital. A shiver caught her by surprise. The memory of that hospital was so vivid. After Patterson had finished with her and had left her for dead, she was taken there to be stabilized and then airlifted to a trauma center. It was a long time ago, but coming home brought it all back. Put it aside, she told herself.
Winston Falls was a typical Southern town. The wide, tree-lined streets oozed charm. She pulled off Main Street, went two blocks over, passed Sacred Heart High School, and turned down Birch Street, where her parents lived. Nearly all the houses in this older part of town had wide front porches, and the residents liked to relax outside in the late afternoons with their newspaper and their sweet tea. She remembered sitting on the painted wooden boards of the large wraparound porch of her own house, playing board games with her sisters.
A block away she spotted her home. The two-story house had recently been painted a pale yellow, and the front door and shutters were now black. Black wicker chairs sat on the porch, and their new red cushions matched the potted geraniums flanking each of the wide porch steps.
Her father must have been looking out the window because, as soon as she pulled into the driveway, he opened the front door and motioned to her, shouting, “Park behind the garage, Ellie.”
The paved area to the rear of the garage was originally intended as a basketball court, but her family often used it for parking when people came to visit. At the edge of the court were steps that led up to an apartment above the garage. It had been recently painted as well, and she noticed there were blinds in each of the upstairs windows now. Her parents had really spruced up the place, she thought.
She had barely turned off her car engine when her father came out the back door and down the steps. He opened his arms wide and she rushed into them. No matter how old she became, she would never grow tired of her father’s bear hugs. When he finally let go, he took her by the shoulders and held her at arm’s length.
“Are you okay? Did you have any trouble getting here?” he asked anxiously.
“I’m fine, Daddy,” she assured him.
Southern girls grew up calling their fathers “Daddy,” and Ellie wasn’t the exception, though occasionally the Midwestern influence kicked in and she’d call him “Dad.”
Ellie opened the car trunk, and her father lifted out her bag.
“This is light as a feather. Did you put anything inside?”
She followed him into the house, and he set the bag in the back hall before going into the large country kitchen.
“Where’s Mom?” she asked.
“Doing some grocery shopping. She’ll be home soon. We didn’t think you’d be here until late.”
Ellie was glad it was just the two of them so they could talk.
“How about a nice glass of iced sweet tea?” he asked, opening the refrigerator.
“I’m afraid I don’t like sweet tea,” she admitted, feeling terribly disloyal to her Southern heritage. “I’ll make some plain.”
“No, no, your mother made both.”
Ellie got the glasses out and filled them with ice while her father poured the tea. She took a drink of hers and grimaced. They switched glasses, and she headed to the living room.
“Want to sit on the porch?” she asked.
“No, no,” he said a little too quickly. “Let’s sit inside. It’s cooler in here.”
She understood his motives. “But we could sit outside after it gets dark?”
“Yes, we could if you want to. It will be cooler then.”
“And it would be more difficult for anyone walking past to see us, right? Or, rather, see me?”
“Now, Ellie . . .”
“Dad, I don’t want to hide inside this house all the while I’m here.”
“I just want you to be cautious. Your mother worries.”
He walked to the bay window overlooking the front yard and the street beyond and stood there staring out. It had been more than a year and a half since she’d been with her father, and there was a distinct difference in his appearance. He didn’t look well. His complexion had a gray tinge, and he’d put on a little weight in his belly.
“It’s going to be a hectic week before the wedding . . . ,” he said.
“Yes, I know.”
“. . . and we don’t know where he is.”
“Evan Patterson.”
He turned to her. “Yes, of course Patterson. I would rest easier if I knew where he was hiding.”
“We can’t let him run our lives . . . ruin our lives,” she corrected. “He shouldn’t have that kind of power over us.”
He didn’t answer. The strain of worrying was there on his face. Her father was a distinguished-looking man with thick silver hair and handsome facial feat
ures. His shoulders were broad and straight, and she knew he tried to take care of himself, but stress could do so much damage, and he’d lived with it for years. All because of Patterson and his sick obsession with her.
She was beginning to wonder whether coming home was a mistake.
Changing the subject to something more pleasant, she said, “You painted the house since I was last here. I like the color.”
“We painted it last month,” he replied, smiling now. “Your mother has been on a cleaning frenzy because of the wedding. I’ll take you to see the apartment above the garage. We finally cleaned it out. It didn’t take much to spruce it up. The two bedrooms and the bath were in good shape, but we refinished the floors. All we had to do with the tiny kitchen was replace the stove and fix a pipe under the kitchen sink. Except for the plumbing and the electrical, your mother and I did most of the work,” he said proudly.
“What made you decide to do it now?”
“We have so many relatives coming in for the wedding, and not all of them will want to stay in the motels or the one fancy hotel we have here in town.”
“You should consider renting it out after the wedding,” she suggested. “I’m sure there are students at the university who would love to have the space.”
Her father shook his head and sat down on the sofa facing her. “Finishing the apartment adds to the value of the property,” he explained. “I don’t want any college kids tearing it up. This home is an asset, and that includes the apartment when it comes time to sell.”
She laughed. “Oh, Daddy, you love this house. You’ll never sell it.”
“I don’t know about that. I’m getting old, and all those stairs . . .”
“Mother loves this house, too,” she reminded him.
“I’m just saying sometime in the future.”
The conversation ended when the back door opened and her mother called out, “I need help carrying in the groceries.”
Ellie jumped up and ran to the kitchen. “I’ll help.”
Her mother was so surprised to see her, she nearly dropped one of the bags on the floor. She quickly turned to set them on the kitchen counter and then grabbed Ellie for a long embrace. “You’re early,” she exclaimed.
After Ellie had carried in the remaining groceries, her mother made her stand in front of her for an inspection. “Have you grown? I swear you look taller. Maybe you’re just thinner. Have you been eating? With those horrible long hours at the hospital, I’ll bet you’ve been skipping meals. Are you hungry, Ellie? I’m defrosting a chicken casserole. It should be ready to pop in the oven. What about something to drink? I could fix you—”
“Mother, I’m fine, and I’m not a guest,” she said.
Her mother smiled. “I’m just so happy to see you.”
Ellie pulled a chair out at the kitchen table, told her mother to sit while she put the groceries away, and to please catch her up on all the news.
“Ava will be dropping by tomorrow or the day after. She’s got so much to do still before the wedding. She and John just purchased the cutest little house about two miles from here. John’s taken a position at the Winston Falls Clinic,” she added.
Ellie put the milk in the refrigerator and folded the grocery bags.
“He’ll be working next to the hospital,” her mother went on. “Ava told me that dermatologists have set hours. That will be nice, won’t it? To get home for supper each night?”
Her mother was looking expectantly at her. She wanted some kind of a response or acknowledgment about Ava and John. Ellie refused to discuss either one of them, and so she stayed silent.
“Your father and I are thrilled that John decided to move here. It will be nice to have them so close.”
“When will Annie get here?” she asked, ignoring her mother’s comments about Ava.
“She can’t leave San Diego until Thursday, but she’ll be here for an entire week.”
Ellie pulled a chair out and sat down across from her mother. “You and Dad should go to San Diego sometime to visit her. It would be a great vacation for you.”
“Oh heavens, no. That would cost a fortune.”
“Are you worried about finances?” she asked.
It was a foolish question, she decided. Her mother and father were always worried about money. Just the expense of having her live so far away all those years had been a drain on them. The flights alone had been exorbitant.
“No, we’re not. We’re frugal,” she explained. “And we live on a budget.”
“The house looks wonderful, and Dad said the apartment is finished.”
“It was time we cleaned up this old house and fixed up the apartment.”
“You look great, Mom.”
It was a sincere compliment. Her mother was a beautiful woman. She still had the same figure as the day she was married. Ava and Annie shared their mother’s bone structure and coloring. All three were slender and had honey blond hair and blue eyes.
“It’s the new makeup. It’s supposed to make you look rested.”
Ellie laughed. “That’s a new one. I’ll have to buy some.”
“Listen, I know I didn’t want to discuss this before, but I’ve decided we need to talk about Ava, to clear the air before—”
Ellie cut her off. She wasn’t in the mood to hear about her sister. “I’d like to talk about Dad.”
“What about him?”
“When did he have his last physical? He doesn’t look good, Mom.”
“Don’t let him hear you say that. You’ll hurt his feelings.”
“He’s tired, that’s all.”
“Maybe he should use some of your miracle makeup,” she said, her irritation obvious in her voice.
“Don’t you take that tone with me, young lady,” she said. “Your father is fine. He saw the doctor just last week.”
Her mother was defensive, and Ellie couldn’t understand why. She wasn’t attacking her father. She was concerned about him.
She decided to let that subject go, too. The list of what she couldn’t discuss was growing. Money and health and Ava. What was next?
Her mother reached across the table and took Ellie’s hand. “I’m so happy you’re home, and I’m sorry if I’m a little short. There’s just so much more to do.”
“What can I do to help?”
“Your father wants to paint all the bedrooms before the relatives arrive. He’s finished our room and the study across the hall from us, and he’s also done two of the bedrooms upstairs. He still has Annie’s old room. You could help with that.”
“I’ll be happy to,” she said.
Her father walked into the kitchen and put his hands on Ellie’s shoulders.
“Ellie’s going to help you paint,” her mother told him.
“Great. After I get home from the university, we’ll tackle Annie’s old room together.”
“You can have your room tonight, Ellie,” her mother said. “But after painting, I don’t want you upstairs until the fumes are gone.”
“Who’s going to be sleeping in the garage apartment?”
“Perhaps Aunt Vivien and Aunt Cecilia,” her father suggested.
“Those steps are too steep for Vivien,” her mother said.
“She would have to go upstairs to get to the bedrooms in here,” Ellie pointed out.
“Yes, but these steps aren’t as steep. They’re much wider, and there aren’t as many of them.”
“If Aunt Cecilia hasn’t lost any weight, she won’t be able to get up these stairs either. Besides, the aunts will want to be in the house with you and Dad.”
“I imagine they would,” she agreed. “They like to be in the thick of things.”
“Why don’t I stay in the garage apartment? And the aunts can stay here in the house.”
“I don’t know about that. You’ll be all alone,” her father said.
“Dad, it’s ten feet from the house,” she exaggerated. “If I get in trouble, I’ll sh
out. You’ll hear me.”
Her father thought for a second. “I suppose I could get another dead bolt and put it in . . . just to be on the safe side.”
“It would solve another problem, William,” her mother said.
“Now, Claire, you don’t need to be bringing that up until we have time to sit and talk to Ellie.”
“Aren’t we talking now?” Ellie asked.
“A serious talk,” her father qualified.
She didn’t like the sound of that. The last time they had a serious talk, they told her she couldn’t come home for Christmas.
She turned to her mother. “Solve what other problem?” she asked suspiciously.
“Since you brought it up, you might as well go ahead and tell her,” her father said.
“Ava might be spending the night here, the night before the wedding. She doesn’t want John to see her. She said it’s bad luck.”
Ellie couldn’t resist a bit of sarcasm. “Is she wearing black? Or red for—”
“She’s wearing a white gown,” her mother said.
“That’s a stretch,” Ellie replied. “Isn’t she worried she’ll be struck by lightning when she goes into the church?”
“You stop that right now,” her mother snapped. “What happened is in the past, and we have to find a way to move on.”
Ellie didn’t respond. Her father sat down at the round table between the two women. “Go ahead and tell her the rest. Get it out in the open now.”
“Ava still wants you to be in the wedding.”
“No,” Ellie answered vehemently. “I haven’t spoken to her since the last time I was here, and that was eighteen months ago. Why in God’s name would she insist I be in the wedding? Mom, if you’ll recall, she wanted you to ask me months ago, and I told you to tell her no. I haven’t changed my mind. I only came back here because you and Dad insisted, and I will try to attend the wedding, but that’s it.” Shaking her head, she added, “I don’t know why she won’t let it drop.”