“Jude, when exactly is your little sister starting? I was thinking that she should stay with you the first few days.” Paul Faulding came through the door to the kitchen expecting her to be patting something with flour or rolling out dough on the marble counter. She was waiting for him to arrive with her hands on her hips. Her face was screwed into a small fury. The mail he had opened earlier and had forgotten was there on the counter to be perused by uninvited eyes. Her eyes met his before a bit of a grunt was forced from her throat. Or was that a growl emitted all the way from her swollen abdomen?
Paul smiled despite the trouble he faced—even ill as she was, he still saw Jude as a lovely woman: clear, pale skin that flushed a delicate rose, sharp blue eyes and dark brown hair now clipped shorter to frame her features in wisps. She was narrow through the shoulders and tapered across the chest, so that the baby bulging under her short dress looked ridiculous. She was wearing footless tights and ballet flats against the cool of the morning, which made her look fancifully younger like a dance instructor moonlighting as his wife. His mouth soured at that thought because she would never be his wife, but she made a lovely companion, one of the few welcomed inside his quiet house. He beamed at her though she was obviously furious with him.
“Paul Faulding! What are you up to with this?” On the counter, the classified report on Jude’s younger sister fluttered from the breeze coming through the screen door. The carefully compiled list of Edith Troth’s itinerary had been compressed into two sheets and portrayed a globe-trotting, party girl with all her meals and shopping detailed during most the “lost years,” as Jude often put it. He had asked Jude’s husband Todd to look into the young woman’s escapades from her three-year escape to Europe. The agency-anonymous intelligence showcased a silvery-haired, chameleon-like girl twisting through alleys, chatting with tourists, lunching with business men, and walking hand-in-hand with the same handsome, dark-haired man in various scenes.
Shaking his head, Paul held out a hand for the dossier. “You know how I feel about strangers. I wanted to know what your sister was doing all that time she was missing in Europe. Did you know she stayed in Italy most of the time?” He pointed to a line in the report. “I thought you said she called you from France and England? Well, there was one field trip to France—to Saint-Gervais.” He held up the glossy of Jude’s blonde, milky-skinned sister who swam nearly naked in a waterfall with her dark-haired Romeo.
The man in the photographs had a narrow face dominated by large eyes. His thin, wiry build matched her sister’s flexible, lithe form. The photographer had caught them at a distance cavorting under the water and then donning their hiking gear to return to a larger group. Paul’s gaze lingered at the girl’s open, happy face and then her long, exposed legs. “She was never in London or Paris. Saint-Gervais is near Marseilles. She must be an accomplished liar. These photos prove that one of the agencies had her under surveillance the entire time she was there. It’s a wonder your father didn’t have her picked up by one of his agents and returned to the States!”
Jude snatched away the bundle of papers and slapped his arm. “When she gets here, you’d better get that lewd mind of yours under control and wear real clothes. Thank God I didn’t bring the kids with me today!” She gestured to his pajama pants and robe. Jude was red-faced and looked mildly concerned with Paul Faulding’s transparent interest in her sister.
They both froze as rap sounded, and a voice called from the front door, “Hello? I’m Edith Troth—my sister asked me to come! Jude, are you in there?” Jude pulled Paul’s robe across his chest in a hurried movement, and their bellies brushed which made him chuckle. His mouth grazed her cheek in a familiar brush with his lips.
Her eighth month with this last baby had been heralded by expansion on a daily basis. He envied her husband’s right to wrap his arms around this woman and stroke her swollen belly. He felt himself quiver with desire for that kind of familiarity. Jude cocked an eyebrow at him and whispered, “Do not let her see you like that. And she can’t see this! We’ve never spoken of it.” She gestured toward the stairs to his bedroom and gave him the report with the photographs to hide.
Paul shook his head and shoved the folded dossier with the surveillance photos into the pocket of his robe. “Something tells me that nymph from the waterfall wouldn’t bat an eye.” He picked up the cane where he’d left it at the counter, straightened his spine and positioned himself awkwardly to meet his temporary housekeeper.
Faulding’s disappointment was keen because the former water nymph was grounded in jeans and a flowered blouse that hid most of her curves. Her light-blond hair was tugged back in a barrette, and she was perspiring with a load of one large suitcase and an overfilled book bag. She grinned as she entered the house encumbered and exclaimed, “Jude! I didn’t realize the baby was coming so soon.” The lumpy satchel full of paperbacks was lowered to the floor with the suitcase, so she could hug her sister gingerly and give Faulding a shy grin and a “hello” in a slightly huskier voice than he’d expected. They shook hands in a quaint stiffness as names were exchanged through Jude. Paul squinted and tried to find the girl who had cavorted through the Italian plazas with her dark-haired lover and found her replaced by an older, more serious person.
Jude examined her also. “What’s all this, Edith?” She tried to take the large shoulder satchel, but Edith took it back when Jude winced at the weight.
Edith Troth shrugged. “I over-packed. You told me that Dr. Faulding was out in the sticks, so I prepared for the wilds of the Outer Banks. You weren’t far wrong; that was some kind of hike from the highway. The books are for the last of my grad classes. I splurged and bought myself a computer to take two online classes and prepare for my last difficult course in the fall. I figured there was nothing to do here at night but read and gaze at the stars.” She grinned and glanced at the sloppily underdressed Paul Faulding. “Sorry if I arrived too early.”
Faulding grunted and looked away as he spoke to the window, “You are a day early, and I just realized it was afternoon.” He jerked as he looked down to find that he was indeed wearing pajamas and that the belt to his robe was lopsided. He busied himself straightening it in abstraction. Edith glanced away from his fumbling in the wrinkled, voluminous, worn cotton with his wild hair and overgrown beard.
Jude cocked an eyebrow at her oldest friend and then rolled her eyes at Edith. In bright daylight, Paul Faulding was a mess with a full, untrimmed beard, shaggy hair and a sleepy look in his eyes.
A bit too brightly, Jude explained, “Paul is a night owl. If I remember your old habits, you operate on opposing schedules. You will have lots of time to complete your reading list. So you’re finishing the degree?” Jude was trying for normalcy and polite conversation with her little sister who was more a stranger than a close relation.
Edith nodded. “Degrees! Yes. It’s a bit scary to finish just like it was to return to the States and begin again. Big decisions are right around the corner. I need to have a few answers about a career by the end of the summer. Dad wants me to apply to the Bureau, but I was thinking about teaching.” Half under her breath, she muttered, “And there’s always Foreign Service through one of the embassies.”
Jude nodded and led the way through the house to a short hallway with three doors—the center being a set of old French doors cover with thick curtains. Carrying her bags through a doorway that Jude indicated, Edith entered a narrow room that ran half the width of the house. She crossed to the windows and pulled back the curtains revealing a long deck that overlooked a meadow. Tall trees in the yard divided the panorama of a sleepy creek. “What a pretty place! This is too rich for me.” Edith turned to a built-in bookcase and touched books that half-filled the shelves—tomes of physics, philosophy and history. She found numerous plant and garden reference books that were covered in green or red leather. She smiled at their rarity and looked up to find Paul Faulding studying her.
Paul glanced toward the second door where his desk beckoned. “I guess it appears large after a college dorm, but the room is actually a bit small. We stole some space from it when we enlarged my study. This used to be a summer kitchen and pantry before we gutted it. My study is through the next door on the hall, but you needn’t bother with it while you’re here; consider it my private domain.” The unfriendly statement sounded rehearsed. Paul fingered the report he had tucked into the large pocket of his robe and shivered at prickles of unease.
Edith looked toward the French doors and nodded. “Yes, of course. This must feel odd, having a stranger in your home.” She glanced at Jude who had dumped out the whole satchel of books on the single bed and was organizing them by author. Edith moved toward her sister. “This bedroom is larger than an entire apartment we rented in Milan.” She crossed to the bed to view the collection of texts and novels. “Leave them, Jude. I have to read them in a prescribed order. One of the courses is Philosophy through Literature which requires a dreadfully long list of classics chosen by an eccentric professor.” She arched an eyebrow at Faulding whom she had tossed into the same category.
Paul was eyeing the titles and frowning over the heaviness of the curriculum. “Milan! I worked there for a short while. Do you still talk to your friends from Italy?” He heard the little disapproving grunt from Jude again as he probed for information. He touched Edith’s books and started to perspire as he mentally flicked through the waterfall pictures in his robe pocket.
Edith gave him an odd look and shrugged, “From time to time.” Paul Faulding stared at the outline of the maiden from the waterfall and found her older, guarded and free of the joy he had been fascinated with in the photographs.