This story is by Dawn Van Beck and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
Pacing back and forth, I shot glances through the curtains of the grandiose picture window. My mind echoed warning words.
Brooke Westfield, are you mad? What if the press found out? They’d love this story!
Pffft. Who cares about the press? Unlike the Los Angeles Times, the ‘Highlands Post’ wasn’t concerned about me. Admittedly, I was all alone now, tucked away in a large, North Carolina mountainside cabin. Still, I’d choose this over Beverly Hills any day. I’d be careful.
Resolved, I stretched both arms to the center of the curtains and forced them aside. There he was, right on schedule. Standing at the garden’s edge, leaning against a white pine, looking straight at me. As he started to flee, I pounded the glass.
“Wait!” I darted, flinging open the door. “Please don’t run. I just want to . . . talk.”
Surely, I was deranged. The man who had been staring at me each morning for the past four months stood before me.
“Look, Ma’am,” he said, backing up. “I don’t mean any harm. This place was vacant. I promise I’ll leave you alone.”
“Stop!” He jumped at my fervor. “Please, sit. Honest, I’m not upset. I just want to talk. Please.” I motioned to the table and two chairs in the center of the garden.
I brushed the twigs off one chair. He abruptly sat on the other; brown, crunchy leaves and all. I sat looking across the table, suddenly wishing I’d grabbed my sweater–not certain if the chill zapping my body was due to the brisk weather, or the reality of the circumstance I’d put myself in.
Awkward silence hung in the air. My heart skipped a beat as he moved his hand to remove his tattered cap, exposing his black, ruffled hair. I shifted in my chair, twitching my fingers. Although his face appeared rough and patchy with dust, his cobalt blue eyes seemed to be looking right through me. He finally broke our silence.
“I appreciate the food you’ve been leaving out for me. Thank you.”
“I thought you might be hungry.”
My chest heaved as I studied his face.
“My name is Brooke. I’m fairly new here. You show up every morning, apparently to watch me open the curtains, and then you disappear. I just want to know why. Where do you go? What’s your name? I—want to get to know you.”
Exhale. What on earth was I doing? Any sane person would be terrified to be sitting alone with a stranger at a secluded mountain home, talking. Oddly, I wasn’t.
“Luke. You can call me Luke.”
So began our peculiar friendship. We met a few times each week in the garden. The more we chatted, the more we shared, although Luke seemed to measure his words carefully.
I kept inquiring why he used to stare each morning when I drew open the drapes, however, he provided little explanation. The most I discerned was I reminded him of someone who was now gone. He shared his best skill was, of all things, gardening. This explained the strong, rough appearance of his hands. I learned he disappeared for long periods during the day, returning to sleep in a tiny shack I never knew existed at the back corner of my property.
Naturally, I gave him some towels, soap, a blanket, food items. He appeared a bit cleaner each time we met, aside from his soiled zipper sweatshirt and tattered blue jeans. I saw a softer face, even under his scruffy beard. Most arresting were those eyes. Warm, yet penetrating. His gaze always made me feel he was guarding—something.
He clarified he had not always been homeless. He used to rent a simple, one-room flat over a bakery downtown. He had few possessions, by choice. Reluctantly, he stated he lost everything four years ago and sought the woods for shelter.
I, too, offered selective information. My Versace wristwatch demonstrated I came from money; correction—I had money. I shared I was divorced, happily, from a hot-shot night club owner. General basics aside, we steered clear of anything too personal. I spoke nothing of the previous homeowner nor the circumstances that brought me there.
The frigid air caught my breath as I stepped outside, heading to the garden. I drew my Cashmere cardigan close, waiting. I sat down and took several deep breaths. Finally, Luke arrived wearing the gray, quarter-zip sweater I gave him. I tapped my fingers together as he surveyed my face.
“What’s wrong, Brooke? You look . . . nervous.”
“Nothing.” I looked up through the barren trees, mustering courage.
“Actually,” I cleared my throat. “You and I–I guess you could say we’re friends.”
Luke wrinkled his forehead, nodding.
“It’s getting colder outside. Winter’s right around the corner and that little shack of yours, well—it’s not much of a refuge.”
His eyes narrowed.
“I was thinking . . . there’s a guest house adjacent to the garage; two rooms and a bathroom. I’d be fine with you staying there.”
“Brooke—I can’t do that.” He shook his head. “You’ve been gracious enough to allow me to stay on your property—I don’t want any reason for you to mistrust me.”
“I’m not asking you, I’m inviting you. We mind our boundaries; no strings attached.”
Luke got settled that afternoon. I gave him some men’s clothes from the house and clean linens.
Before long, our visits began occurring in my kitchen over coffee. Luke was a welcomed change. Unlike the lying, cheating, abusive blow-hard I once married, he was kind and comfortable. We were becoming . . . familiar.
A tumbling of snowflakes teased my face as I dashed a delivery of baked bread to the guest house. Luke was gone on a job interview. Stomping my feet upon entry, I noted his threadbare backpack on the table, open. Closer inspection revealed a discolored, crumpled newspaper protruding from the top.
My curiosity piqued, I gingerly picked up the newspaper. I opened it to expose the cover story of a fatal car crash naming one Lucas Spencer. Sudden heat flushed my face. Luke. I read on, trying not to faint. Paralyzed, I sat for several long moments before finally scribbling a note for Luke–with detailed instructions.
Steam hovered over the chilled water of Lake Sequoyah. I watched a silhouette of mallards in flight against the sunset sky. Glancing down at my “Café du Lac” menu, I pondered my motives. Was I crazy? Perhaps. I had directed Luke where to purchase a suit and preauthorized the credit card. I informed him of the time and location of our dinner reservation, and then . . . waited. As the tinkle of a piano crooned a slow, jazz melody, I wondered if he would show.
Looking toward the entry, I caught glimpse of a man in a black suit, smiling at me. He looked vaguely familiar. As he approached, his physique scrambled my vision. I finally recognized those piercing eyes, with the stunning addition of a dimple on his newly-shaven face. He sat across from me; I blinked back tears.
“It wasn’t your fault, Lucas.”
“You were Toby Westfield’s gardener, right? And . . . your fiancé, who died in the crash–she was?”
“Luke, did she open up the drapes every morning while you worked in the garden?”
He nodded. I collapsed in my chair.
“Toby was my rich, rotten husband,” I explained. “I divorced him before he bought the cabin. I’d never been here before, but then . . . the crash.”
“I killed them both, Brooke.”
Tears puddled my eyes. “I’m so sorry for your loss. It was an accident.
“No, I lost control . . . she was in the car. First, I hit him . . . then that tree.”
“Toby was drunk—he wandered in front of your car. He caused the accident. It wasn’t your fault.”
Luke’s eyes grew wild. “But the reports . . . I did jail time!”
I grabbed his hands. “You were framed. My ruthless, millionaire stepson paid off the authorities to save Toby’s name. I was rewarded to stay quiet.”
I nodded. “That, along with a chunk of money. Luke, I beg your forgiveness.” I shut my eyes against hot tears. “I had no choice. What could I do? The Westfields . . . are . . . powerful.”
Luke’s eyes locked on mine with a fixed expression. Time stood still. With a deep breath, a gentle smile finally crossed his lips.
“So,” I said, clearing my throat. My fingers swiped the moisture from my cheeks. “I say, the least we can do is enjoy ourselves spending Toby’s money.”
Luke paused, then shot me a wink. Standing to his feet, he took my hand.
“Well, in that case, Brooke Westfield—would you care to dance?”
I rose from my seat, flashing a smile.
“Lucas Spencer . . . I’d love to dance.”