Kate left and I felt a restlessness replace the contentment I’d been feeling. Lord knew, there was enough I could be doing around the old house. Cleaning, such repairs as I could manage without proper tools or materials, perhaps rearranging the worn furniture this Nyla person had left behind. I’d never had anything to do with her but I wouldn’t mind scrubbing the memory of her away. I wanted to make this place ours – mine and Kate’s. I wanted it to reflect our personalities, not some bad tempered woman we’d never met.
That’s what I wanted and it would happen in time. But now I elected to continue my explorations and to that end opened the rusted gate at the back of the garden and walked into the stone worked passage that was cut between two blank windowed rooms. The ceiling arched above me, low enough that I could stretch on tiptoe and touch its ancient stone. I lightly ran my fingers over the almost invisible seams; they might have been mortared together yesterday, so closely did they fit. I shook my head in admiration of the ancient’s talents and continued to the other end of the passage, my steps echoing.
The glare of light through the arched opening I was moving toward blinded me. My fumbling fingers finally worked the latch on the second tall gate and I stepped out into a vista of rolling hills under a hard blue sky.
There were many things I could have noticed when I could see properly again, and I did in a vague sort of way. The brilliant yellow of wildflowers sweeping in joyous swaths over the contours of the hills; a grouping of tall, thin trees, which I later learned were cypress, and which had been connected for centuries with death and burials – perhaps they guarded an ancient gravesite, or maybe one not so ancient; a white walled house perched atop the highest cliff, its red peaked roof peeking coyly through feathery green bushes.
But my eyes and interest zeroed in on the abandoned dovecote, sitting in solitary splendor only yards from my own back door. It looked like a miniature castle. Or maybe a miniature high rise, built by a developer who dabbled in medieval re-enactments. One of its turrets was missing, but other than that, it looked to be in pretty good shape. Instead of windows – or arrow slits – there were rows of round openings; I brilliantly deduced this was how the doves got in and out. They were high up on the walls – bird high, I thought to myself, with a silent laugh.
The bottom level was smooth, whitewashed stone, its expanse unbroken except for a warped wooden door. It opened surprisingly easily and I entered with the intent to explore and to inventory what would be needed, just as if I knew anything about keeping doves.
But the acrid miasma of old bird poop, still strong and bitter from being enclosed for lord knew how many years, drove me back outside again. I took in a deep breath and sneezed.
The deep voice like to have scared me to death; I whirled around so fast I stumbled and almost fell on my ass. He grabbed my arm and held me steady until I’d found my equilibrium. Physically, at least.
I’d never been much of a one for flirting. I was serious and studious and back when I’d first met Patton, virgin as well. Living with Patton didn’t do a whole lot for my socialization skills. Why did I stay as long as I did? Lord only knows, except I’d been inexperienced and unsure of myself and Pat had no hesitation in trying to shape me to fit his needs. It had taken Kate, and the realization that this was someone who understood me, who I could depend on, to pull me out of my well worn rut.
The man standing before me was someone I wanted to flirt with. If I could only figure out how. He didn’t tower over me like Patton had, he was dark to Patton’s fairness, and he had the face of a mischievous devil. I knew right off, this man was dangerous. I also knew right off that I didn’t give a damn. The new Min …
“Thank you …” I stole a peek at him. “I saw you yesterday – on the boat. How’s your cow doing?”
He made a prrutt sound. “She’s not mine. But old Stefan wanted to talk of his bargaining skills. That cow is quite a coup for him.”
“Are you American?” He groaned. “Get that a lot, do you?” I smiled.
“You just don’t know! I’m a Harvard grad; between school and my mother I can talk the talk.”
“I’m Min Hudson – well I guess it’s Bennett now.”
“Nikolas Stefenopolous … just call me Nick. What’s the Min stand for?”
I flushed. I hated my given name, I’d even thought about changing it legally, but of course, it never happened. Like a lot of other things in my life, it just never happened.
“Araminta,” I said reluctantly.
“Araminta …” He sounded like he was savoring the name on his tongue. “I like it, it suits you.”
“How can you know that, you know nothing about me!”
“Then let’s just say it suits the picture you present.”
I was wearing an old sundress; the almost constant breeze was molding the skirt against my newly shaven legs. I’d put on a filmy light jacket to protect me from the sun and a straw hat I’d seen on the big ferry, decorated with ribbons and cherries and looking completely frivolous and feminine. I had to admit he had a point. I was dressed like a woman in an impressionist painting, completely useless and looking exactly like an Araminta.
I met his eyes, so dark a brown they looked black. “That’s why I go by Min. Min sounds much more in control.” I glanced at the dovecote again. “Min’s going to whip this building into shape; there’ll be doves living here again. As well as goats.” I turned back to laugh at him.
He rubbed the back of his neck. “I heard about that, Daniel is a law unto himself. So, you’re going into the dove business.”
“I don’t know that it’ll be a business, it’s just something I’d like.”
“You’ve got a taverna, why not supply the food as well as cook it?”
“Surely you jest! Kate would have a fit, she’s still not over the goat in the livingroom.”
“Goats do better outside,” he agreed. “It’ll be interesting to see how you two ladies get on.” He paused. “I can send Tino down to make a start on cleaning this out for you, you’ll have enough to do with the house and restaurant. Consider it a housewarming gift,” he insisted when I started to shake my head. “Tino needs more to do anyway, for what I pay him.”
“Well, thank you …”
“Planning many changes to the house?”
“We haven’t planned at all. One day at time. We got here, that’s enough for now.”
“Nyla ruined it, putting in those doors, destroyed what it was, what it had been. I just hope you don’t try to modernize it too much.”
“It’ll probably stay pretty much like what you see now, only cleaner. We’re on a limited budget and the restaurant comes first. Why do you care?”
His smile caused something deep inside me to clench. “Old family mansion,” he said easily. “New family mansion.” He gestured to the top of the cliff and the red roof.
“Oh,” I said softly, completely understanding. “How could you stand to sell it?”
His expression tightened. “I didn’t, my father did. He’s never had much use for this island,” he added lightly, “so I browbeat him into giving it to me.”
“You own this island?”
“For my sins.”
“We pay our taxes to you?”
He laughed. “You have some interesting times ahead of you. Here, another housewarming gift. Looks like I chose wisely.” He held out the parcel that had been tucked under an arm and without waiting for me to open it, walked away, circling the house and heading down to the town.
“Nice to meet you, Araminta,” he called back over his shoulder.
“You too,” I said faintly and tore open the thick brown paper.
An intricately carved stone dove with a tasseled collar about its neck emerged. The tip of its beak had broken off, but some of the original color, a deep red, clung to its base. It seemed to be smiling at me.
I clutched it to my chest and watched Nicks’ erect figure diminish in the distance. But I didn’t think anything about him would be diminished as far as I was concerned. He already seemed to know me too well for comfort.
Time to put off my lady of leisure clothes and get down to some cleaning.