Carole nodded, and her butler walked away toward the back of the house. The tray he’d indicated held a few envelopes, so she picked them up and took them into Oscar’s study.
She pushed back the roll top of his desk and laid the envelopes on the blotter. Once seated, she couldn’t help but notice the fanciful bird hidden in one of the nooks meant for envelopes. An antique of alabaster so fine it was nearly translucent, the figurine had cost a great deal of money. One of the dozens of things Oscar had bought for her simply because she’d wanted it. He’d had excellent taste—far better than her own. But as soon as she’d fallen in love with something, he’d declare it the finest example of whatever kind of work it was and buy it for her on the spot.
The figurine watched her as she sorted the mail—two bills, a shareholder’s statement, and another envelope. A letter from a law firm she didn’t recognize.
After the settlement of Oscar’s estate, she ought to know every lawyer in New York, but this one didn’t jog her memory. She opened the envelope and pulled out a single sheet of heavy vellum.
“My dear Mrs. Rutherford,” it read. “Please allow me to extend condolences on the loss of your husband.”
Oh yes, that. She’d had enough sympathy to last several lifetimes.
“I wish I could be with you during these difficult hours. You won’t remember me, but we met a few times several years ago. I’ve kept the memory of those encounters fresh in my mind ever since. You are not easy to forget.”
Dear Lord. What on Earth could that mean? She looked at the signature and found only an initial. T. The person had closed with “Fondly, T.”
The envelope gave no clue to the identity of the author. Simply the address of a law office on Fifth Avenue. When had lawyers started writing notes like this? She went back to the letter.
“If it’s not asking too much, I’d like to hear back from you. I know this seems an odd request, and I’ll be happy to explain at length in another letter if you’re interested. Simply reply to Mr. Rose at the address on the envelope. If you don’t answer, I won’t bother you any further. Fondly, T.”
Mr. Rose. She searched her memory. With all of Oscar’s family’s acquaintances and their friends in New York and the opera society and the people who flitted in for Oscar’s intellectual salons, she’d met hundreds of people in the last several years. None of them were named Rose that she could recall. Not even a woman with a first name Rose. And why would the person write to her using a law firm as an intermediary?
He must have meant to protect his identity for some reason, although heaven only knew why someone would feel they had to fear her. Or, maybe he’d only tried to intrigue her. He’d accomplished that nicely. Or, possibly…just possibly…he’d wanted to make her feel safe enough to respond. This way of communicating almost promised a barrier between them, a wall she could throw up if he got too close. Another level of intrigue.
She ran her fingers absent-mindedly over the paper. They stopped at the sentence that had made her breath catch. “You are not easy to forget.”
She shouldn’t reply. No sane woman would. She might find a maniac on the other end of the chain of communication. She should visit Edna, go to Saratoga this summer, attend more to family manners. Any decent woman would. But damn it all, she’d been decent too long. What harm could a letter do? She’d probably never hear from him again, and if she did, she’d keep things strictly to corresponding through a firm of lawyers. You couldn’t get much safer than that.
She fished through the cubbyholes until she found some of her own letterhead. The man had to know her address if his attorney did.
She set the piece of stationery in front of her and picked up a pen.
“Mrs. Oscar Rutherford,” the printing said. Good Lord, at least she could have one of her own names back now. She crossed out Oscar and substituted Carole. Then, she began to write.
Even in the city, the rose arbor at the end of the garden behind Carole’s house felt like a sylvan paradise. She sat alone on a wooden bench, surrounded by the flowers’ perfume and the buzzing of insects. A damselfly whizzed by and landed on a leaf near her head. Its body shone in iridescent blues and greens too brilliant to be real. She watched it until it flew off again.
The time had come for her to settle on what to do with the rest of her life. At forty, she might not even have spent half of her time on Earth. She had her health and plenty of money. She only needed some purpose—something to drive her forward so she didn’t just dwell in the past.
She ought to do charity work. Other women in her position spent their time that way. Organize teas for benevolent associations. Host fundraising events for the symphony and ballet. She’d attended enough of those. She ought to know how to run one. The mere thought gave her a headache.
Why try to fool herself? Her head wasn’t the problem. Her body was, specifically the spot between her legs. For the last years of his life, Oscar hadn’t had the strength to perform. He’d slip into her room from time to time and huddle beneath the covers with her. Then he’d kiss her and smile, but a sadness had filled his eyes, although he tried to hide it. He’d known he couldn’t give her what she needed.
She’d loved him, damn it. She’d kept her vows. She’d been a good wife. She deserved more. And now, at her age, she could only tempt another older man. She’d never have what her body craved.
Enough self-pity. Most women would love to have her life. She only needed to find a way to make the most of the many blessings she’d been given.
She started to rise but then spotted Mayne coming down the path toward her. He had a glass of something in one hand and a bronze salver in the other. When he reached her, he held both out.
“Cook thought you might like some lemonade,” he said.
“Thank you.” She took the glass and sipped the tangy, sweet liquid.
“And the mail.” Mayne set the tray on the bench beside her, turned, and went back toward the house.
The mail consisted of only one letter—from the same law firm that had sent the odd correspondence from Mr. Rose earlier. She’d written back weeks ago and had heard nothing. It seemed she’d have a reply, after all.
She set aside the lemonade and picked up the letter.
“Dear Carole,” it began. “I hope I may call you that.
“I had so feared you wouldn’t answer my note that my heart soared with delight to see your letterhead and the graceful hand that addressed it. You see, although I haven’t had the pleasure of being in your company for years, I think of you so often, I felt your presence near me when I sat down to compose that opening salvo in what I hope will become a long and satisfying friendship.”
Oh, my. Odd, very odd. One might even find it frightening. Still, it was only a letter, and one sent through a third party. This Mr. Rose hadn’t approached her directly, and she’d be perfectly safe inside her own house with a full household staff if he tried.
“Indulge me, please,” it went on. “Is your hair still the golden color of ale it was when I last saw you? Are your eyes as clear and deep as emeralds? Do you still hold your chin at that defiant angle when challenged?
“Forgive me if I seem too bold, but that’s how I remember you—a woman of great integrity and beauty. If I’ve said more than I should, by all means, let this letter be our last. But I do hope I haven’t offended you and that you’ll dignify my requests with a response.
“Until then, I remain fondly yours, T.”
Her heart was racing when she finished reading the note. Although he’d described her poetically, he had the details of her appearance correct. He’d even noticed what Oscar had always called her stubborn jaw. They had, indeed, met, and he’d paid close attention to her appearance.
Rose, Rose. Why couldn’t she remember anyone named Rose? She must have noticed him at least once as he so clearly knew her.
She picked up the envelope and studied the return address again. Bradley and Morrison, Attorneys at Law. Fine. Tomorrow, someone on their staff would explain these letters and tell her exactly who Mr. T. Rose was.
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Alice Gaines writes erotic romance for Red Sage, Etopia Press, and Changeling Press. She writes erotica for Avon Impulse. She has also published with Leisure Books, Harlequin Spice Briefs, and Carina Press, among others.
Alice likes her food spicy and her reading spicier. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area in a fixer-upper she never fixed up. She shares the back yard with a neurotic stray cat. Her beloved pet corn snake, Casper, has his own house in her writing room. Besides writing, Alice loves cooking, knitting and crocheting, and vegetable gardening. She’s insane about funky soul band, Tower of Power. Alice serves on the altar guild at her church.
Alice’s website is www.alicegaines.blogspot.com. Every Friday, she posts an erotic excerpt at www.alicesexcerpts.blogspot.com. On the fourth Friday of the month, she posts an installment of The Adventures of Wonderslut. She’s @AliceGaines on Twitter. Feel free to e-mail her at authoralicegaines.gmail.com.