Welcome back to our summer serial, Dare Me! If you’ve missed the previous installments, you can start at the beginning by clicking here.
And now, without further ado… Chapter Five!
“Home, sweet home,” said Jack Vallenti.
His shirt was plastered to his body and he was breathing hard from the run across the courtyard. They had made their way across in driving rain, which puddled in the hollows of the bricks clear up to Kristy’s ankles.
Kristy wrung out her wet hair, splattering droplets all over the hardwood floor. “Pretty impressive,” she said. “Usually it takes at least one drink for a guy to get me home with him.”
“There’s Coke in the fridge.”
“You big spender, you.”
He locked the door and turned back around to her. “Sorry, I’m straight out of Ovaltine.”
She was suddenly very aware that she was wearing only Aunt Ada’s old robe. His t-shirt and shorts were still reasonably opaque after their run in the rain. She suspected Aunt Ada’s robe was not. She could feel the white silk clinging damply to her body, like the carved on robe of a Greek statue. Or a spread in Maxim.
Somewhere, an air conditioner was chugging asthmatically away. Kristy could hear its every wheeze in the silence as they stood, frozen. She could feel goosebumps breaking out over her arms and legs.
“You’re soaked.” Jack cleared his throat. He backed away, pivoting without falling over his own feet. “Let me get you something to wear.”
“Something a little more comfortable?” Kristy called after him.
“Something a little less damp,” he shot back, heading for what she assumed was the bedroom.
Kristy hovered awkwardly in the center of the living room, rubbing her hands up and down her arms to warm them. She wasn’t sure why she was pushing it. Habit, perhaps. The more nervous she was, the more sarcastic she got. “Sassy,” her PR people used to call it, but the truth of the matter was that nine-tenths of the time, it was just plain rude. It did serve its purpose most of the time, though; it kept people at arm’s length.
Aunt Ada’s lawyer should have been running for the hills by now. Instead, he was being ridiculously nice. And it completely weirded her out. Usually, when someone was nice to her, it meant he wanted something: a contribution, a photo op, a piece of her fame, the right to brag that he had hooked up with Kristy Dare.
Not that that was a particularly exclusive category.
In her less discriminating moments, she’d gone through men like Kleenex, anything for the illusion of intimacy provided by a pair of arms around her, lips on her skin. She’d known it was a lie, but, combined with a few cocktails, it did the trick for a night at a time.
She’d seen a lot of different apartments in her time. A lot of men’s living rooms. A lot of men’s bedrooms.
This one was ridiculously well maintained. It wasn’t a large place. The old carriage house had been converted to a large, open plan living room/dining room, with a kitchen separated only by a counter. A living room area had been set up on one end, with couch, chairs, coffee table, and, against one wall, a ridiculously large flat screen TV with enough devices around it to power a space shuttle. Nearer the kitchen end, there was an old drop-leaf table of shiny, dark wood with four chairs around it. There was an open laptop at one place, sitting on a battered plastic place mat. The surface was almost entirely covered by a profusion of loose papers and file folders. Clearly, the dining room tabled doubled as desk.
Outside, the rain still battered against the long windows. In the darkness, it looked slick and black, like oil on the windows. Somewhere back there was Aunt Ada’s house, her house now. It felt like a million years since she’d first driven into town.
And now? She was standing in a strange man’s house in a kimono made for a midget. Or at least someone a good six inches shorter than she was.
Kristy leaned against the side of the window, feeling thoroughly wiped out. It had all happened so fast; the news about Martin, the flight back to the States, the drive into town, the house, the fuse blowing, the lawyer. Like Spaceballs, she’d gone past ludicrous speed straight into plaid. She’d been so wired, wired and jittery, running on sugar and nerves.
The last of the adrenaline that had been fueling her leached away, leaving her exhausted and drained.
She blinked hard, trying to concentrate on the patterns made by the rain against the window. It would all look better in the morning. She’d fix the fuse; she’d see a real estate agent about selling the house; she’d talk to the bank about an overdraft. She’d call California and make sure everything was okay. That had become her euphemism, “calling California”.
She didn’t want to think about that now.
If she had any pride left, she would gather the last of her wits together, thank the lawyer for his kindness, and take herself back to Aunt Ada’s house, which might not precisely feel like hers, but at least was legally her own turf. She’d spooked herself, that was all. Too many horror movies, too little sleep, too much adrenaline.
She wondered, tiredly, what he’d been thinking when he offered her a place to stay. It could just be that he didn’t want to leave her alone over there, that he really was afraid she’d burn the house down, or fall down the stairs in the dark and break her neck. She’d certainly done nothing to convince him of her competence.
Or did he just want to brag that he’d spent the night with Kristy Dare?
Paranoid, she heard Emma’s voice telling her. Can’t you just take a kindness as a kindness?
Kristy detached herself painfully from the window frame. Emma was sweet, but sometimes she could be very naïve. She still believed in the innate goodness of man. Of course, Emma had also been with the same guy for the past eight years. That did tend to shape one’s view of the world.
She wondered if Jack Vallenti would tell his girlfriend Kristy had spent the night. She wondered if the girlfriend would mind.
The lawyer was still rooting around in the bedroom. “Hey!” Kristy called. “Mind if I use the bathroom?”
“Knock yourself out.” His head popped around the doorframe. “Not literally.”
You could take the lawyer out of the office…. “Do you offer all your overnight guests a liability waiver?”
An arm appeared out the bedroom door, holding a folded shirt. “Only ones I’ve found dangling out of windows. Here.”
“Grazie.” Kristy took the shirt and escaped into the bathroom.
Either he had a cleaning lady or he was one of those insanely neat people by nature. Kristy suspected the latter. All the medicines were in neat rows in the cabinet, organized by ailment; the towels on the rack weren’t folded, but they were spotlessly clean.
There was no sign of female habitation, no pink razors or upmarket shampoo. There was a mega-sized bottle of Head & Shoulders two-in-one on the side of the tub. And a rubber duck. Kristy rather liked the rubber duck.
Kristy shook out the shirt. Most guys she had known left their T-shirts wadded up on the bedroom floor; this one had neat creases. He folded his T-shirts. It was green, with a rather dopey looking moose on it, and MAINE written in capital letters beneath him. It was guy-sized, which meant it came to the top of her thighs. Roughly the same length as Aunt Ada’s robe, but she felt much more covered up in this, possibly because it didn’t keep falling open.
She could feel her cheeks heating at the memory. There’d been a fair amount of accidental gropage going on up there. She could still feel the press of his body against hers, his leg between her thighs as they’d tried to extricate themselves. It had been, um, interesting.
A little too interesting.
She pushed open the bathroom door harder than she needed to, almost bumping into Jack, who was coming out of the bedroom. He’d changed into dry clothes, a pair of plaid boxers and a washed out gray shirt with HARVARD written on it in cracked crimson letters. His hair was tousled, as though he’d attacked it with a towel. Kristy knew actors who would’ve killed for that bed-head look.
She tugged the moose shirt down over her thighs. “Hey,” she said. “I’m sorry I attacked you in the hallway. I was a little freaked out.”
“You didn’t attack me; I bumped into you.” He scrubbed a hand through his still damp hair. “I should have called you instead of barging over. That was pretty dumb of me.”
“But kind.” She’d never been good at acknowledging kindness. This was one of the things she meant to change. “You do a good line in knight errantry.”
“With the emphasis on ‘err’,” he said wryly. “Can I offer you anything? Are you hungry?”
“I’m fine.” Her stomach growled at the mention of food. She crossed her arms to cover it. Hadn’t she fed it a healthy and balanced dinner of peanut butter cups mere hours ago?
Jack listened to her stomach, not her words. He made his way across the room to the kitchen, opening cabinets. “There’s not much in the way of food around here….”
Kristy trailed along after him. “You don’t have to. I mean you’ve already—”
“But I can offer you dry cereal.” He turned, a box in his hand, practically chest bumping Kristy. “Or—a power bar?”
Squirming back as far as the breakfast bar would allow, Kristy tried to concentrate on the cereal. She squinted at the brightly colored box. “Fruit loops? I’d pegged you as more of a Wheaties man.”
“Don’t tell my cardiologist.”
He didn’t look like he needed one. According to the fit of that T-shirt, Mr. Jack Vallenti, Esquire, was in excellent shape. Hefting those law books must be more exercise than Kristy had realized.
“Do you want any?”
Cereal. He was talking about cereal.
“Huh? What? Oh, right. No, thanks.” Edging away, she pointed to his t-shirt. “Did you come by that honestly?”
He tucked his chin down and squinted at his own chest to see what he was wearing. “You mean did I go there? Yes. For law school. I did my undergrad at Dartmouth.”
That was a lot of ivy. “Impressive.”
“Not really. Firefighters are impressive. I just test well.” She got out of his way so he could lead the way towards the living area. He pointed to the couch. “This is the couch.”
It was, indeed, a couch.
“I got that,” said Kristy. “From the fact that it’s a couch.”
This couch had seen better days. The upholstery was rubbed down to the nub along the arms and the cushions were the most anorexic specimens Kristy had seen. There were probably pancakes with more heft to them.
On the other hand, beggars couldn’t be choosers. It was either this, or the House of Usher.
“Will you be okay on this?”
Right now, she could probably sleep on a wooden plank.
“It looks great.” It looked like a back-ache waiting to happen.
He opened a closet and came back with a top sheet folded into a tidy square. It was a non-descript pale blue, unpatterned.
He frowned at the couch. “I’d offer you a blanket, but I don’t think you’re going to need it.” He nodded towards a window air-conditioning unit stuck into one of the side windows. It was set to Low Cool. “The wiring here is slightly better than your Aunt Ada’s, but I don’t like to push it.”
In fact, nothing made any sense. Down the rabbit hole didn’t even begin to cut it. She was on a strange couch in a strange man’s apartment in a strange town where nothing seemed to go quite as expected. She’d driven off the grid of her known life. Suddenly, she had a house, a great aunt—admittedly, a dead great aunt, but that was still more family than she’d known she had—and a tenant.
Who was being bizarrely nice to her. Where was the ulterior motive?
Kristy plopped down on the couch, shaking the sheet over herself before the T-shirt rode up too much. Not like he hadn’t seen it already today.
“Well, um, thanks,” she said hastily. “This was really decent of you. All of it.”
“After all the trouble I had tracking you down, I don’t want to have to get started on finding the next next of kin.” He leaned both hands against the back of the couch. “Why didn’t you mention that you were a big, fancy movie star?”
Kristy did her best not to react. She’d learned long ago that the best defense was not to let them see you sweat. Or something like that.
“I prefer pop icon,” she said, with a yawn.
He raised a brow.
Kristy pulled the sheet up around her neck. “I’m in the child star protection program. Blow my cover and the feds will come after you.”
He gave her a look that told her he wasn’t buying it. “Goodnight, pop icon.”
“Goodnight, Harvard. Sleep well.”
The bedroom door clicked shut behind him.
That was it? He didn’t want to grill her for details of her salacious past? Sit on the edge of the couch and ask awkward questions about life on the red carpet?
So he did know who she was. And really didn’t care. And wasn’t going to try to hit on her.
Kristy rolled sideways, trying to get comfortable on the couch. The upholstery was in a nubby pattern that she was pretty sure she was going to find imprinted on her skin in the morning. She wrapped herself in the sheet like a mummy, burrowing into the sagging cushions.
Maybe Emma was right. Maybe there were still good guys out there.
Yeah, and unicorns.
Across the room, the bedroom door opened softly, and a voice murmured, “Kristy?”
The hairs on the back of her neck prickled. So much for unicorns.
She levered herself up on one arm. “Yes?”
She could barely make him out in the gloom of the unfamiliar room. “I thought you might like this.”
“Oh, yeah?” She could practically hear the implied boom, chick-a-boom.
It was a great opening line for a sex scene, but instead of a guy strutting across the room in his boxers, something arced through the air and landed, with a plop, on her stomach. Kristy pawed the sheet off her face and looked down. It was a pillow.
He had given her the pillow off his own bed.
“You’ve got another one right?” Kristy called out. “Another pillow?”
“Don’t worry about me.” She could hear the smile in his voice. “There are three more where that came from. Sleep well.”
Kristy tucked the pillow under her cheek. It smelled like him, like Head & Shoulders and guy. She’d only met him this morning. There was no reason she should find that comforting.
But she did.
* * *
When Kristy woke up, the lawyer was gone.
Sunlight streamed through the long windows, making the hardwood floors glow golden. Someone had turned off the air-conditioner and opened the windows. Along with the warm breeze, she could smell honeysuckle and lavender and the unmistakable and indescribable smell of green things drying after a rain. For a moment, she just lay there, breathing it in, basking in the sun, still half-asleep in a meadow of summer flowers.
Only she wasn’t in a meadow of summer flowers. She was on the lawyer’s couch and her right arm had fallen asleep. Kristy shook off the sheet, stretching painfully into an upright position. Her mouth felt fuzzy. She shook out her arm, grumbling as the blood began to flow back to her fingers, and squinted at the digital clock on the cable box.
It read 11:35.
11:35 a.m. As in morning? She must have slept like the dead. Glancing blearily over her shoulder, she saw that the door to the bedroom was open, the bed neatly made. Jack must have gotten himself up, dressed, and out without waking her.
There was a note on the cocktail table in front of the couch. She had zero recollection of anyone putting it there. Kicking the sheet off her legs, Kristy fumbled for the folded piece of paper.
In barely legible handwriting, it read: “Make yourself at home. Fruit loops in the cupboard. If you need help with the fuses, call.”
And then a number.
Kristy wondered whether it was his number or the number of the hardware store. And why it mattered to her which it was.
Stupid. He had a girlfriend. And she was only here until she could get the house off her hands.
Bunching the sheet into a clump, she levered herself up off the couch, shaking out the kinks. Oh, for younger days, when she could sleep on anything and bounce up again in the morning. She took a slow saunter around the room. There was a cereal bowl in the sink, with a residue of pink-ish milk. On an impulse, Kristy rinsed it out, and stuck it in the dish drain.
In the bathroom, only the dampness of the towels gave any indication that someone had come and gone. That and Aunt Ada’s robe. She’d left it draped over the shower bar. It was still there, but now it was hanging from a hanger, the shoulders perfectly aligned with the spine of the hanger.
Pulling the t-shirt up over her head, Kristy tossed it into the hamper, on top of a pair of yellow boxers patterned with snowmen wearing sunglasses. Cute. She slid back into Aunt Ada’s robe, which felt stiff after its soaking. It was even shorter than she’d remembered it being. Did silk shrink in water? She didn’t think so. Which meant that, yes, she had been showing this much thigh last night.
Could she just slink out of town and pretend this had never happened?
Pulling the robe as tightly around her as it would go, she let herself out of the carriage house, looking both ways. All she saw were high boxwood hedges and one alarmed chipmunk, who took one look at her and scurried off into the foundation.
Even so, Kristy couldn’t quite shake the feeling that someone was watching. She peered into the hedges, but only a sparrow peered back. With a shrug, she set out across the brick courtyard. With the sun high in the sky, the bricks were warm beneath her feet, any moisture from last night already burned away.
There were no paparazzi here. Besides, she was old news. She hadn’t been stalked with telephoto lenses for years. It would have to be a really slow news day for someone to bother tracking her down.
She could just see the headlines. “Aging Child Star Fights Fuse Box!” Yeah, that would really drag them in in droves.
Aunt Ada’s house looked just as depressing in the sunshine. Depressing, but not nearly as frightening. It was, once again, just a house. An old house, yes, but not fundamentally evil in itself. In fact, she could see where it must have been quite a showpiece once, all the way out here at the end of town, cradled by the hills, with a view of the river. Standing on the brick patio, with the lavender flowering along the sides, she could imagine what this must have looked like once, when there were flowers in the cracked stone urns on either side of the patio, and women in white dresses and high-buttoned shoes.
Did white dresses and high-buttoned shoes come from the same era? Whatever. It was her own private costume drama. She could costume her characters however she liked.
She wondered if her mother had ever played here. Had she come here as a child? Smelled the lavender, played on the brick patio?
She could ask, but she knew she wouldn’t get a response, not a response that made sense at any rate.
That reminded her, though. She hadn’t checked her phone since she’d gotten here.
She let herself in through the kitchen and made her way back through the house. This time, she knew where she was going, no roundabout routes via the old conservatory. She went straight through the swinging door in the kitchen to the front hall and up the stairs. The carpet was just as dingily green, but it looked different with sunlight coming through the oriole window, comfortably lived in instead of sinister.
Kristy’s bare foot connected with something, and she looked down to find Jack’s flashlight. She picked it up, giving it a wry look. That hadn’t been her finest moment, had it. Rolling around on the floor here together….
Anyway. Her phone was on the bedside table in the pink and white room. No messages, no missed calls. Phew.
Kristy exchanged Aunt Ada’s robe for a pair of rolled up jeans and a polo shirt in a particularly screaming shade of hot pink. She retrieved her sunglasses from the floor of the parlor, fixing them firmly on top of her head, and picked up her banana-shaped shoulder bag.
Armor on, she let herself out the front door, patted the lions on the head, and set out to find Ye Olde Hardware Shoppe.
Chapter Six coming up next week!