Vanessa Tower jammed hard on the clutch of her PT Cruiser, and shifted down into second gear. The machinery groaned and complained, even though it was only a year old.
Fitting that the car wanted to be here as little as she did. Yet here they were, inching up the side of a mountain at what was surely an eighty-five degree angle. Worse, the top of the mountain–for she was determined to get to the top–promised no relief from stress.
No, at the top of the mountain was a person who didn’t have the decency to respond to repeated requests by telephone, U.S. mail, or e-mail.
This man promised to be a louse extraordinaire. Vanessa frowned. Brain, she said to her brain, nobody uses the word ‘louse’ anymore. ‘Louses’, not to be confused with lice, went out with the what-’fifties? Her friend Shelly would laugh at her. Shelly teased her affectionately about how unhip she was, how her mind remained mired in the 19th century instead of acknowledging the fact that it lived in the 21st. But then Shel had a belly ring, and Vanessa had a PhD in Art History. She’d written her dissertation on Rodin, to whom her friend referred as “that rodent guy.”
Brain! You’re wandering again. Must get back to the business at hand. Namely what she was going to say to Christopher Dunmoor, the man on top of the bloody mountain she was scaling. “Mr. Dunmoor,” she’d say. “The faces of the unforgiving look remarkably like sphincters as they age.”
No, no, no! That was not an opening calculated to persuade the louse to do what his grandmother wanted. And she had to persuade him, for Miss Eugenie’s sake.
Vanessa wrapped the Cruiser around another curve, keeping so close to the side of the mountain that she almost scraped the paint off. If she arrived at the top with deep gouges in the gorgeous shimmer of green, she’d sue the louse for criminal elusiveness. It sounded good, anyway.
She inhaled the crisp scents of pine and heather, and the danker smells of moss and loam. Though it was August, the temperature in Massachusetts for the past week had been balmy; in the lower to mid-seventies. The higher she went up the mountain, the cooler the air became, raising slight goose-bumps on her bare arms.
With a last corkscrew turn and groan from her usually purring car, Vanessa emerged from the rough trail and pulled into a clearing. In front of her sprawled a rustic cabin with a shingled roof, and upon the roof was a . . . dear God. Upon the roof was a . . . well. Upon the roof was the louse.
But what a glorious, glorious louse. Booted, denimed, and shirtless, he stood tall on the apex of the little house, swinging a hammer and glistening copper in the sun.
Vanessa pushed her wire-framed glasses up her nose and closed the mouth she hadn’t been aware was open. She got out of the car, still staring.
The louse set his hammer down and ran a big hand through his mane of dirty gold hair. He picked up a large insulated cup, took several gulps, and then sluiced a good amount of water from it down his back and chest.
Vanessa swallowed hard as the rivulets rushed, without foreplay, between his shoulder blades and down his spine into the waistband of his jeans, where they dampened the whole seat. The fabric molded instantly to his buttocks and thighs.
Oh, yes, he was a glorious louse. He had the arms of Atlas, with shoulders like . . . uh, boulders, and those buns were of truly mythical quality. He seemed to sense eyes upon him, if not salacious drool, and he turned on his heel to face her.
Dunmoor’s eyes were a piercing green even from the roof. They were also cool, critical, and downright crotchety. “Whoever you are,” he said, “go away.”
His attitude was enough to dry her drool on the spot. Vanessa gaped at him, caught off guard. Then she put her hands on her hips, and said, “No.”
He shot her an annoyed look. “Why not?”
The man had a nerve! “Because, Mr. Dunmoor, I’ve gone to great lengths to talk to you, and I’m not leaving until I’ve done so.”
He shrugged. “Mr. Dunmoor was my grandfather.”
Yes, he was. And that was the reason she’d inched her way up his anti-social mountain. They stared at each other for a long moment, during which she didn’t move a muscle. She felt like an idiot in her pale green linen suit and stockings, and she glanced down to find a wayward ant scaling her leg much as she’d scaled the mountain.
She broke the mutual glare first, to flick the insect gently back into the grass, where it high-tailed away from her cream sandals and the panty-hose she’d hatched fresh from the package this morning.
“If you’re not leaving,” he sighed, “then call me Crash.”
Crash? Crash? What kind of ridiculous name was that? “As a matter of fact, Mr. D-uh, Crash, it’s your grandfather I’ve come to discuss.”
His green eyes flashed from cool to frozen. “I don’t discuss my family with anyone.”
Well, wasn’t Miss Eugenie’s Little Christopher an affable guy. But the old lady’s troubled face swam into her memory, reminding Vanessa that she was here with a serious purpose. She sighed, and tried for a smile. “I’m Vanessa Tower. I teach at Seymour College, about half an hour southeast of here.”
Crash Dunmoor eyed her quizzically, and folded his delicious arms across his scrumptious chest. “And you came to see me on your way home from church?”
She flushed, feeling even sillier that she’d worn a suit. She’d donned it like armor, to protect her and help her feel professional. In the face of the louse and his cabin, the suit was ridiculous, like wearing pearls into a reggae bar.
“I’ve been doing research on your late grandfather’s paintings for the past eight months, and in the process have become friends with your grandmother. I’m here at her request, and I’d like to talk with you.”
“No.” Crash turned away and reached for a roll of tar paper, dismissing her.
Louse. No, think 2001–butt-head. “Look, I’ve driven a long way. I’ve tried to contact you by mail and phone–”
He pivoted on one heel, holding the roll of tar paper at an angle. She could see through the long, dark tunnel of it to a small circle of blue sky. “Which part of “no” did you not understand?”
Vanessa clamped her mouth shut and thought about snarling. This guy was not only arrogant, but rude. She counted to three, and decided she wasn’t going to let him run her off. But she had to get up to eye level with him. As it was, she felt like a pale green grasshopper at the feet of Zeus. She spied his ladder on the left side of the cabin, and prayed that he was fresh out of thunderbolts. She’d come up a mountain, so why not a ladder? It was a vertical kind of day.
“Fine,” she said and walked to the ladder. “However, I need to talk to you, and I don’t suppose you can work effectively with your fingers in your ears, so I regret that you may actually hear what I’m going to say. And it does, unfortunately, concern your family.”
He’d turned away again. She set the ball of one sandaled foot on the lowest rung of the ladder, and found that in order to make it up to the next rung with her other foot, she was going to have to hike up her skirt. She slid the lousy thing over her knees and scrambled up.
As she got to the top rung and teetered out onto the roof on all fours, Crash was on his knees. He needed to assume that position more often.
She watched him slice through the tar paper with a utility knife, and anchor the far side of it to the roof with a staple-gun. Then he turned his head and stared incredulously at her. “What in the hell are you doing?”
She tilted her chin at him. Any minute now they were going to circle each other like strange dogs squaring off over a lawn. She figured they’d get straight to the growling, without any preliminary butt-sniffing.
“What are you doing?” he repeated.
“I told you. You may not want to listen, but I’m going to talk anyway.” She gingerly straddled the roof’s apex, keeping her knees bent.
“You’re more likely to fall off the roof.”
This was true, but she didn’t feel like admitting it.
“Take off those shoes. They’re slick on the bottom.”
This was true also, but her pantyhose were fresh from the package.
As if he’d read her mind, he told her, “Your life is worth more than four bucks at the supermarket. Take ‘em off.”
She sighed and did so. She’d probably have ripped them anyway, and this only brought her total lifelong expenditure on stockings from $8, 233.00 to $8, 237.00 and change. “I could help you hold that paper stuff down while you staple it.”
He shook his head at her. “Stubborn wench.” An unexpected flash of humor appeared for an instant in those startling eyes. “I hope you brought up a cold beer.”
Wench? Beer? “Excuuuuuse me? Just who do you think you are?”
“You’ve informed me that I’m Crash Dunmoor. If it’s up for debate, and I can assume some other identity, then I don’t have to listen to what you’re determined to tell me.” A ray of hope crossed his face, and it gave him away.
True butt-heads didn’t express hope; they blocked it out like the sun. The guy would listen to her, not push her off the roof. “Dunmoor,” she began.
“Smith,” he corrected. “Bob Smith.”
“Try again,” Vanessa said.
“Not falling for it.”
“Damn.” He accompanied the epithet with a wry grin.
So there was a sense of humor buried under the avalanche of attitude and muscle. Vanessa took a couple of wobbly steps onto the roof, which was hot under her feet, and he put out a long, lean hand to steady her. Hmmm. Maybe he’s even partially human.
“Sit there,” he ordered, pointing at a spot near the chimney.
She narrowed her eyes. Maybe not.
“It’s the safest place. You can lean back against the chimney.”
Okay, border-line human. She made her way there and released his hand, which was wired with bad-boy arrows that fired at all her neurons. Her hormones clucked like a gaggle of hysterical hens, which was humiliating. Good thing he didn’t know.
She took a moment to slam the door to the chicken coop, only to look up at those damned green eyes of his and sense a fox sniffing around the blasted birds. This was bad, very bad. Badder than LeRoy Brown. Speak, Vanessa! And not about Shelly’s favorite retro song.
“So . . .” prompted Crash, his mane of dirty blond hair wild in the rooftop wind.
“So!” Tell him why you’re here, you lunatic. Her smile was too bright. She opened her mouth only to have it filled immediately with her own hair. She pulled it out and twisted it back into a knot at the nape of her neck, then squashed the mass between her neck and the rough brick of the chimney. She pushed her wire-framed glasses to the top of her nose.
“Even if you only read the first lines of the letter you ignored, you know that your grandmother Eugenie is drawing up her will.”
Crash rocked back on his heels. Impressive, given the fact that he was squatting. “I think my silence has indicated that I’m not interested in it.”
“Point made. But Miss Eugenie wants you to know exactly what you’re turning up your nose at. Your grandfather’s paintings, as a collection, are now worth upwards of 2.6 million dollars.”
Crash rocked forward again and whistled. “So the old coot turned his yellow ochre to green.” Next came a careless shrug. “It still has nothing to do with me.”
Vanessa, still choking at hearing the great Thomas Dunmoor called an ‘old coot’, said, “It has everything to do with you. You’re the last of the Dunmoor line. You’ll ultimately decide whether or not the paintings stay together as a collection, or are sold piece by piece. You have an obligation to educate yourself about them, and a duty to pass on that education to the public.” Aaaack. Now didn’t that sound stuffy and righteous.
Crash let out a short, unamused bark of laughter. “Obligation and duty aren’t concepts I entertain much, Vanessa. And I don’t feel the faintest desire to carry on either my grandfather’s legacy or his seed. He was a stubborn old bastard who had some talent with a brush. So what?”
“Have some respect! Have some heart, for heaven’s sake.” The words flew out of her mouth before Vanessa could recall them. Her skills as a negotiator had shredded faster than her stockings. What was wrong with her?
Crash leaned forward and grabbed her arm, his eyes dangerous. “Careful, Miz Tower.” His fingers dug into her flesh, and she pulled away. “You really don’t know what you’re dealing with, here. Have some respect, you say? Have some respect for a man who didn’t bother to respect the truth? Have some heart? Thomas Dunmoor pulled it barehanded right out of my chest twelve years ago. Then he stomped on it in a pair of Timberland boots just like the ones I’m wearing.”
He took a long, measured lungful of mountain air. “So you see, Miz Tower, I don’t give a rat’s ass for the great Thomas Dunmoor or his heritage.”
“And I don’t give a damn about what it’s worth, either.”
You’re nuts, but I think I might respect that about you.
“You’re wasting your time.” He bent over the tar paper again, and added punctuation to his words with the stapler. Kathunk. Kathunk. Kathunk.
Good, Nessa. Now how are you going to change his mind? She needed to go buy a copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People. And read it fast. Miss Eugenie was expecting better than this.
She thought of the old lady, clutching her multi-colored knit sweater around her bony shoulders. “I want to see him,” she’d said wistfully. “But that may be too much to hope for. Thomas–we both–hurt him so badly. And now it’s been so long. So many wasted years.”
Miss Eugenie hadn’t seemed to want to talk about it, and Nessa didn’t like to pry, so she still didn’t know what had happened. All she knew was that twelve years was a long time to hold a grudge against a sweet little old lady.
She looked for some kind of family resemblance between Crash and his grandmother, but could find none. Miss Eugenie was tiny; bird-like, with a cloud of perfectly white hair that had once been dark, like her eyes. Her nose was straight except for the very tip, which age and gravity had pulled down a bit. And one of the most endearing things about Eugenie Dunmoor was that her small ears flared from the sides of her head. Instead of trying to pull her hair forward to hide them, she wore dangling silver earrings that only accentuated them.
Crash was at least six foot four inches, and sported a crooked, tapering nose that on anyone else might have been ugly. His ears were barely visible under all that hair. He looked like a Viking on a raid. She was picturing him in a horned cap when she realized that he was speaking to her.
“I asked if you’d pass me that box of staples.”
She did so. “You don’t look like either of your grandparents.” From pictures, she’d seen that Thomas Dunmoor had also been dark-haired, though he’d had blue eyes.
“Nope. They used to call me the Throwback.” His mouth twisted slightly.
“Nordic ancestors. On the Dunmoor side, actually. I’m the only one in the family who got the recessive genes.”
They don’t look at all recessive on you.
“Not my father, not Ste-” he shut his mouth, jamming staples into the gun with more force than necessary.
Ste–? Steven? His uncle? His brother? One glance at the jumping muscle in his jaw told her it would be useless to ask. There was quite a mystery behind the rift in this family.
But anyway, the horned cap wasn’t too far off the mark. Come to think of it, Crash would look very fine in the horned cap and his Timberlands and absolutely nothing else. Oh no. Shelly is having way too much influence over me these days . . .
“Crash,” she said, focusing again on the task at hand. “You may not care about the money, and you may have hated your grandfather, but-”
“I didn’t hate him.” Crash put the stapler aside. “I loved that old bastard.”
“All right.” She absorbed this. “The fact is that your grandmother loves you. And she’d like to see you.”
“That’s not going to happen. She made her choice twelve years ago.”
“What do you mean? A choice between you and her husband? That’s awful. She wouldn’t have been able to win either way.”
“She’d like to discuss the will in person.”
“No. End of discussion. Tell her to leave the damn paintings to someone else.”
“She’s considering that, but she’d rather leave them to you.”
Crash shook his head. Then he turned his back on her and reached for the roll of tar paper again.
“She’s very ill,” Vanessa said quietly. “Colon cancer.”
His arm froze in mid-air, and then fell to his side. He faced her again, and the hollows under his eyes suddenly looked pronounced. He was silent for a long moment. “What’s the prognosis?”
“I don’t know any details, but I don’t think it’s good. I’m sorry. As her next of kin, you’d be entitled to that information.”
The pupils at the centers of his remarkable eyes widened, then contracted to pinpoints. The green of his irises deepened. And Vanessa decided that Christopher Dunmoor was, indeed human–just trying hard not to be.
She put her hand on his arm. “Why don’t you drive down with me? I’ll take you to the hospital.”
“Thanks,” Crash said. “But when I go, I’ll go alone.”