Memoirs of a Lady Ch. 05bycymbidia©
And I've known many...
In warm Venetian squares,
Pleasures old and new
Can't compare with you.
Wearing only a white silk peignoir, Erica entered her study. Playful mid-morning breezes fluttered the sheer drapes as she moved toward the long windows. She rested against the sill, looking out over the calm blue-green Mediterranean Sea and watched a small white sailboat glide lightly over the water.
From the depths of her memories came the joy she’d felt during her few unencumbered and carefree days on the Olympus with Jan-Dirk and Etienne so long ago. Ah! How hedonistic they’d been for that short time, the three of them. She slid the tips of her fingers over her suddenly erect nipples, remembering how the watery sounds of the desolate cove in which they’d anchored for the night had mimicked the wet slapping sounds of their bodies coming together and parting. This remote part of the Italian Riviera had some of the wild beauty of that unnamed Greek cove and was part of the reason she’d chosen to live here.
A glad smile lit her face as her gaze settled on the roses growing just below the window. Planted in masses all over her property, they were finally blooming. She always looked forward to the early summer show of silvery pink blossoms that characterized her prized Autumn Damask roses. Leaning out the window, she inhaled delicately, delighting in the deeply scented air. She’d long had their essence incorporated into her personalized perfume but nothing could compare to the real thing.
Settling lightly into the embrace of the antique cane-backed chair, she took her place at her desk. The day would be special in some way, she was sure. After all, the roses were in bloom! Smiling again, she reached out to touch one of the perfect Damask roses in their heavy crystal bowl at the corner of her desk.
The mail had come, and her assistant, Suzette, had placed it on an etched silver tray in the center of her desk. She sorted through it quickly before slipping a large manila envelope from the pile. It bore the return address of Andrew Norton, a man she hadn’t thought of in many years.
Erica touched the handwritten name in the upper left corner. Deeply emotional thoughts surged forth from a long-closed compartment in her armoire of memories, from the niche that contained her still-powerful feelings for Andrew. She remembered a tall, broad-shouldered man with emotional green eyes and thick black hair. His air of calm confidence had attracted her from the moment she’d met him.
Using the mahogany-handled letter opener with fluid grace, she opened the envelope. She sucked in a startled breath when a small white T-shirt slid from the envelope and dropped into her lap. Pressing the shirt to her face and nuzzling into it, a flood of bittersweet memories washed through her, memories so real and strong that the room around her dimmed. Standing, she impulsively pulled her silk garment off and donned the soft cotton T-shirt. Her fingers lingered over the tips of her breasts, remembering his touch there. Settling back into the chair, she fastened hungry eyes on the brief letter.
The handwriting was boldly masculine, the ink a stark black against the creamy thickness of the paper.
My dear Erica,
I trust this message finds you well. I hear news of you every so often from people we know in common and trust that your life is as good to you now as it was when we spent our few days together. Can you believe it’s been so many years since then?
I’ve always hoped you would remember our time together with joy and that you never regretted leaving me to fulfill the obligations you had to another. I wished I could have kept you by my side forever, Erica, but the more honorable course lay before us and we never had a real choice in the matter. I’ve missed you, though, and believe you’ve missed me too. Ours could have been a great love.
What is done, however, is done. All those years ago, I opened my hands and let you fly away. I didn’t want to do it, and hated having to choose to let you go, but I did it nonetheless. For you.
Recently, I was sorting through a box of old mementos and came across the enclosed T-shirt. It’s most definitely yours, darlin’. You must have recognized it when it came sliding from the envelope with this letter, didn’t you? It’s where we began, this T-shirt, with this and the roses.
Off and on through the years, I’ve wondered if there might be another chance for us. If so, might that which passes between us be a match for our first incredibly emotional and erotic time together? People only get a few such hours in their lives, you know, Erica, hours stolen from the Gods themselves.
With a slightly trembling finger, Erica again touched the thin cotton as it clung like a kiss to the swells of her breasts. Oh yes, she remembered Andrew.
She’d been so young then, and still so innocent in the ways of passionate men. During their last angry and sad weeks together, the professor had sent her to the wilds of the southwestern United States. He wanted her to be a friend to his friend, a landscape artist of international repute, while the man was recuperating from a serious surgery. She knew, however, that she was being sent away to begin the separation process from the professor, a process that would culminate in her joining Cristoforo De Medici, he who would be her new benefactor.
Summer was just beginning when she went to stay with Albert Windings, the professor’s friend. During her long journey from the professor’s side to Albert’s home, she cried until she was empty. She shed aching tears for lost love, wept feelings of furious abandonment, and sobbed brokenheartedly like a hurt child.
The serenity and beauty of her small study faded away under the painful recollections of that bitter journey. Long suppressed bereavement stabbed into her soul, still a wounding anguish.
Surrendering to the memories, she again stood on the platform of the dingy little railroad station in Baker, California, watching the train vanish into the desert haze. Or was it just the tears blurring her vision? Erica took a deep breath, and looked around for her promised ride.
The only person in sight didn't look much like a chauffeur. While Erica looked at him covertly, he started toward her, smiling.
"Señorita Erica, por favor?" the scruffy little Mexican asked.
"Yes. Yes I am Erica. Are you to take me to Mr. Windings?"
"Si! Si! Señor Windings! Usted vendrá con mí, por favor? You come with me, yes?"
Erica nodded and watched listlessly as the driver gathered her bags. He led her to a large dusty Cadillac parked by the station house and opened the back door for her with a flourish.
Since she spoke no Spanish and his English seemed to be limited to, "I take you Señor Windings, maybe six hour," she settled into the spacious back seat, resigned to a long, lonely ride. A fitting end to this entire trip, she thought, the words a distressed rippling through her mind.
Exhausted, emotions raw and sore, she let her eyes slide, unresisting, along the alien desert landscape as the driver delivered her into exile. Heart-sore and weary, she barely noticed when the car turned off the highway and began rolling down a well-maintained dirt road. The lights that twinkled from a long, low house as they pulled up in front of it caught her attention though. It was the first sign of habitation she’d seen in a while.
The taciturn driver slowed the car, stopped it, and turned it off. He faced her then, smiling over the seat at her. “Éste es Señor Winding's casa, Señorita. You come, yes?”
Erica nodded soberly to him and gathered her things. “Thank you. You were a good driver.”
He leaped out of the car and opened her door, taking her hand to help her out. He looked at the sky and pointed up. "Hay una tempestad grande que viene. Bad rain. You come quick, yes? Venido rápidamente, Señorita, por favor. "
Erica nodded and clutched her thin sweater closer around her body. “I’m coming,” she muttered to his back as he disappeared down the long walkway into the house with her luggage.
Following him, she was surprised to feel a couple raindrops pattering down on her skin. By the time she got to the door, it was sprinkling steadily. The driver sprinted by with another wave and was gone as Erica entered the house.
“Mr. Windings?” she called, stepping over the threshold and into the foyer. “Albert?”
Cautiously, Erica moved further into the house. “Mr. Windings?” she called, entering a room whose walls boasted paintings of the desert landscape in all its moods. Exhausted, she sank into the softness of a richly upholstered sofa and wondered if anyone would mind if she slept right there. She heard shuffling steps behind her, though, and got to her feet, trying for a smile as she turned.
A very old man with the gray skin of the infirm smiled kindly at her as he continued into the room. An ancient robe clung to his thin shoulders and covered his cheerfully striped pajamas.
“I’m Albert,” he said with a sunny smile. “Welcome to Tecopa Springs, Erica. Well, close to Tecopa Springs anyway. The Hot Springs are only another ten miles or so that way." He gestured vaguely towards the front of the house. “I want to thank you for coming to keep me company. Please excuse my informality but, well, you know about the surgery. I don’t have many visitors these days, so you just make yourself at home, okay? Juan put your bags in the first room down the hall. That’ll be your room, dear.”
Erica did her best to return the smile. “It’s my pleasure to be here, Mr. Windings. And Juan was very nice to me.”
“Call me Albert, dear. The other makes me feel old.” He laughed at his joke, his eyes twinkling at her. His face changed and his tone sobered. “I know, Erica, that you’re here under duress but I want you to know that I appreciate your company nonetheless.”
From almost over their heads, a brilliant slash of lightning lit the deep dusk outside the windows, a wildly threatening growl of thunder following almost immediately. The lights flickered several times before burning steadily once more. Erica glanced at her companion apprehensively.
He dropped tiredly into a worn and comfortable-looking armchair. “It’s going to be a bad one, Erica. I have a neighbor coming in to help get all my animals into the barn. Might need some help tightening things up in here, too, windows and such. Of course, what I’m most concerned about are all my paintings out in the studio. Wouldn’t do to have them flooded.” He coughed raggedly, moaned deeply, and a hand slid down to clutch into the robe over his stomach.
Erica nodded in agreement, feeling warmed by Albert’s kindliness and alarmed by his frailness. “How can I help you, Albert?”
More lightning, thunder immediately atop it. The lights went out.
“Albert?” She was scared. “Albert? Are you here?” She put her hands out into the deep gloom and took a few unsure steps over to his chair.
He was still there, but slumped over and unconscious. She heard the front door crash open, and heard the wild fury of the storm raging outside before it slammed closed again.
“Help!” she yelled, her voice sounding too small in the darkness. “Albert is hurt. Help me please!”
A large body wielding a bright flashlight shouldered her out of the way. “Hold this,” he told her tersely, his tone one of someone who is used to being obeyed, as he shoved the light into her hands. She grasped it tightly, reassured by his presence. Careful to not shine it in his face, she watched the shadowy form of the man, large wet and calm, despite the raging storm and Albert’s condition, ease Albert out of the chair like he was a small child. As the man headed back toward the door, he told Erica to “keep the light in front of my feet, please”. Erica hurried to catch up, to try to do that. Within a few minutes, he’d gotten Albert out the door and handed him off to someone with terse instructions to, "Get the old man to Doc Denney’s place. Now.”.
Erica stood nearby, shivering in the driving rain, flinching at each booming explosion of thunder and lightning but unwilling to go back into the dark empty house alone.
The man set a few others to rounding up and securing Albert’s animals and insuring that the contents of his studio were safe from the fury of the storm. Then he turned to Erica.
“You’re that art student girl, right? Erica?” He’d pulled her into the dark foyer and was standing closer than she found comfortable, even in the dark.
“Yes,” she answered, stepping back.
“Well, Erica, you can’t stay here. Albert’s gonna be staying with Doc Denney for a while, I think, and there’s no power here. I’ve got heat and light at my house. You want to come spend the night there until we can decide what to do with you in the morning?” He moved toward her and wrapped a big arm around her shoulder. "You look like you could use some sleep, darlin’.”
Erica was close to crying again. Her heartache over the professor seemed almost distant in the midst of such immediate drama but she was far too exhausted to be dealing with all this in any case. The traveling had been so difficult and all the weather-related anxiety was making her feel jumpy and skittish. She needed some sleep.
“Thank you,” she answered simply, a tremulous edge of deep weariness apparent in her words. “Yes. I’m really tired.”
He guided her to his jeep and then picked his way through the crashing wild weather to a solidly built home about ten miles further up the road.
Running through the rain and into his house was almost too much for her. Fatigue was definitely affecting her ability to function. She felt awkward and clumsy as she tagged behind him into a bedroom off the living room. She waited, silent and immobile, while he turned the bed down for her and made sure there were towels in the bathroom. Distantly, she noticed her wet clothing dripping all over his carpet but couldn’t work up the energy to care about it. Her head was hanging low, her eyes were half-closed, and she was wavering into sleep where she stood.
Returning to her side, he placed a steadying hand on her shoulder and extended the other hand under her nose so she would see it. “Hi, Erica,” he greeted her quietly. “I’m Andrew.”
Startled by his touch, roused from her almost-sleeping state, she summoned the dregs of her strength, grasped his hand, and lifted her head to offer him a wan smile. “Hello Andrew. Do you think Albert’s going to be all right?” To her horror, tears began to slide down her cheeks. “I’m sorry. I’m pretty much all worn out.”
Andrew simply shook her hand, lending her warmth and strength, and ignored the tears. “Albert’s had these spells before. He’ll be fine in a few days. But we'd better get you to bed, Erica, before you fall over. You want one of my shirts to sleep in?” He squeezed her shoulder gently and released her hand. “There’s a robe in the bathroom you could use, too.”
Erica managed a weak smile and used the freed hand to scrub at her face, trying to mop away the tears. “I don’t know right now, Andrew. Please, I really just want to go to sleep.”
He leaned over to kiss her cheek gently. She stilled in surprise at the stab of heat that accompanied the light brush of his lips against her cold skin.
“Good night, then, darlin’,” he whispered, each word warm against her cheek. “Everything will be better in the morning. I promise. Trust me, Erica. Trust me.”
He strode out the door. Erica stripped her wet clothing off, piled it into the bathtub, and slipped into bed nude. She was asleep before her eyelids dropped closed.
Upon waking, Erica took a short bath and worried about where she would be moving today. She wondered if she should call the professor to get his advice. Her cheeks flared with a stabbing sense of rejection when she remembered that he’d gone to Florence to finalize the arrangements with Cristoforo. Her tummy rumbled, prosaically reminding her that it had been some time since she’d eaten. She slipped into the robe Andrew had left her before setting out in search of the kitchen.
Passing through the expansive, light-filled living room, she stopped suddenly. A strikingly detailed terra-cotta nude reclining on a pedestal had seized her attention. She moved closer. Careful overhead lighting illuminated the signature. It was a Casarotti, an extremely rare example of the work he’d done in this medium. She’d never seen this piece outside the pages of specialized art history books. No one had.
Andrew came up next to her and stood quietly, his body almost touching hers. “It’s called ‘Sleeping Beauty.’ Appropriate, don’t you think?”
He put his hands on her shoulders and pulled her lightly back against his body. She was shocked at the intimacy of his touch and stood very still. The warmth from his lightly caressing hands set her nerves aflame. “It was finished in 1917 and has been in the hands of private collectors since then.”
She decided to make no mention of the touching when she finally found the courage to slip from his grasp. Instead, she turned to face him with a pasted-on smile. “You’re a collector?” The smile died and she gasped audibly at the flame of desire that leap from him to her as she met his eyes.
"I collect many things, Erica,” he murmured, raising his hand to touch her cheek, stroking over her suddenly sensitized skin with gently caressing fingers. “I collect the secrets of weeping women, too -- and make the nightmares go away.”
Wanting to cool the flaming intensity that was flowing from him to her, she took a step back and bumped the pedestal. “Oh God!” she swore, turning to steady it.
He reached around to cover her hands and pressed her body between his and the pedestal. She went still again, his weight requiring it of her. “It’s bolted to the floor, darlin’.” Easing her hands off the marble structure, he turned her to face him. He loomed over her, the intensity banked but still smoldering.
“Want some breakfast? I’m good with omelets.”
Erica nodded cautiously in response. Feeling oddly emboldened by his touch and her reaction to it; she took her first real look at him. He was rather ordinary in appearance though he possessed elements of the exceptional. His green eyes were expressive and intelligent. Long, coal-black hair flowed down to his shoulders. A diamond twinkled from the lobe of one ear. He was a tall man, with broad shoulders and well-developed arms. Clean, smooth nails tipped his large hands.
He watched her watching him, allowing her the time. “See anything you like?” he asked quietly.
She blushed and tried to pull her hand from his but he slid an arm over her shoulder and led her into the kitchen instead.
Over breakfast, they discussed the fact that she had nowhere to go and no one waiting for her to get there. He offered her his guestroom for as long as she desired it. She worried that she had nothing to wear because her clothes were still back at Albert’s.
“You know,” he said, his hand brushing over hers as he passed her a basket of croissants, “there might be some women’s clothing in your room”.
“Yes?” she asked, her eyes fixed on a place just to the left side of his head. He’d caught her staring at his face a couple times already and she was determined not to let it happen again.
“Valerie was about your size, Erica, and I think she left some clothes in the room you’re using.”
“The last resident of your room.” He smiled and reached out to tuck a stray wisp of her hair back. “She’s been gone for awhile now.” His finger traced the shell of her ear and she shivered away from his light touch. “She wasn’t of great importance to me.”