Okay, if he got the hint, he decided to ignore it. Avery was waiting in the kitchen when Currie walked in to start the cooking class. Leann and Teri were already standing at the counter where Currie prepared fish.
“What is it today?” Teri asked. In the brief time that she’d been on the island, she’d begun to change. The gaunt, defeated look was nearly gone. She didn’t pat her flat stomach anymore, wishing it were swelled.
“Herb crusted salmon fillet.” Currie handed her the recipe. “You don’t need me to explain anymore. Think you can handle it?”
“Piece of cake!” She turned to her friend. “Let’s do this, Lee.”
Price and Mandy waited for assignments at the steel work table with Brent and Thora.
“The last time I came, I enjoyed it.” Price glanced at the pork chops waiting on a sheet pan. “But I only feel comfortable cooking meat. It feels more manly. No creaming or folding for me.”
“Then you and Avery can sauté the chops and add a vinegar sauce.” Currie pointed to a mound of onions. “You’ll need to slice all of those, so you’d better get started.”
“Avery can slice and dice.” Price pulled on an apron. “He looks like he could use a good cry anyway. Let me at the chops.”
“Who put you in charge?” Avery complained.
“Hey, I have to jump through hoops for Ted Krashor every morning. I get to assert myself somewhere.”
Avery seemed to accept that rationale, so Currie left them to it.
“And us?” Brent asked, glued, as usual, to Thora’s side.
“Raspberry bars. Thora will show you what to do.” Currie turned her attention to Mandy. “What if we team up for the vegetable dishes?”
“Thank goodness! I’ve gotten hooked on working in the gardens. I like the sun and dirt. But I’ve never eaten a bean or carrot that doesn’t come out of a can.”
“Then you picked the right day. We’re doing oven roasted vegetables, sautéed fresh green beans, and sautéed peppers.”
“If you brought in greens, why not?”
“I think I did. At least, I meant to.” She grinned. “I’m still learning.”
Currie looked at the freshly picked spinach and leaf lettuces. “They’re all edible. Let’s start.” As they cleaned and quartered, Currie said, “I worried that the gardens would get lonely for you. How are you doing?”
“I have enough people time when I take the nature walks and yoga classes. It’s nice to have some peace and quiet after teaching P.E. nine months out of a year.”
Currie glanced at Mandy’s strong features and vivid coloring: pitch-black hair in a spiky, short cut and sapphire blue eyes against a pale complexion. Mandy’s nose was a little too long, her lips a little too thin. She wasn’t conventionally pretty, but she looked striking. “How long have you been a teacher?”
“Five years. I hardly missed any work time with the cancer. I had my surgery during the summer break and had plenty of time to recuperate before school started in the fall.”
Physically, yes, but Currie wasn’t so sure about the emotional healing and decided to be direct. Mandy was a no-nonsense type girl. “No wedding ring,” she commented. “Is there anyone special in your life?”
“Not a soul. I’m too pushy for most men. They run for the hills. I have a couple of girlfriends that I hang out with, but that’s about it.”
“What about your family? Were they there when you had your surgery?”
“No, they’re back in Chicago, and that’s not quite far enough away.”
Currie looked at her, surprised. “Where do you live?”
“It’s that bad?”
“They’re nice people. We just don’t mix.”
“Not even when you had cancer?”
Mandy tossed her potatoes, carrots, and onions in olive oil on the cookie sheet, then sprinkled them with salt and pepper. She and Currie put them in the oven. “If I ran from them when I was healthy, why would I want to have them around me when I’m stuck in a bed?”
“I can’t imagine feeling that way about my sisters.”
Mandy watched Currie and started snapping the ends off green beans. “My older sister is perfect. Just ask her or my mom. My brother’s perfect too. Ask my dad. Me--I’m the only kid with warts.”
“I was a crappy kid. They thought I was horrible, so I proved them right. They were just as glad to see the backside of me as I was to walk out the door.”
“And it’s never changed?”
“Do I look like a golden girl to you?” Mandy whacked a clove of garlic when Currie did and peeled it.
“I admire anyone who teaches kids,” Currie said. “It takes a special talent.”
“I’ve found my niche, my love. I’m finally happy.”
Currie blanched the green beans, then drained them. “I’m glad you’re happy teaching. You’ve beat breast cancer. You should celebrate.”
“I’m going to. Who needs a boob when you can have a fake one? They just sag. I’m going to be an Amazon--better and stronger with just one real one. I’ve done a lot of thinking in the garden. And I’ve yanked weeds like I’m cleaning the world of vermin. I’m going to be okay, but I’m not going to be afraid of death anymore. I can work that out here. I’ve started hanging out with Della at the birdfeeders, and she makes me feel good.”
“She’s a gem,” Currie said.
Mandy smiled. “So is Russ. A crusty, old gem, but a gem.”
“Are there other things you need to sort out?”
Mandy thought about it. “When I came here, I was worried that I’d never find a man. None were interested before cancer; I don’t think any would be thrilled with a one-boobed version of the same thing.”
“To hell with it!” Mandy mimicked Currie as she threw greens in a salad spinner and pumped it vigorously. “I’ve pretty much decided that I like being my own person and doing my own thing. I don’t have to compromise or please. I’m going to go in a different direction.”
“I’m going to join a bowling league, a hiking club--whatever interests me. I’m going to make myself happy.”
“It comes down to that anyway, even if you’re married,” Currie said.
“Yeah, but this way all I have to think about is me--and the kids at school.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
“I have a big yard at home.” Mandy glanced out the windows at the sweeping landscape. “I want a garden. And I want to learn to cook more than frozen dinners.”
“Then you’ve come to the right place.”
By the time class was over, everyone looked pretty pleased with themselves, Currie included.
Currie scooped up Thumper and walked onto the back patio for a short break before supper. Leann and Teri followed her.
“Come look at what we’ve been doing with the big patio off the lodge,” Leann said. “Since we work together, we have two chores. In the morning, we do landscaping. Saffron gave us lots of ideas for that. And in the evenings, we work on a quilt together while Brie plays the piano.”
“Brie showed us the perfect idea for our quilt,” Teri said. “The baby bonnet pattern.”
“And you’re okay with that?” Currie asked.
“I think it’s what made me think about adopting. Sort of osmosis through tiny baby stitches.”
“Adopting? Are you serious?” Currie couldn’t keep the joy out of her voice.
Teri nodded. “Leann helped me decide. Dave and I applied for a baby in Haiti when I had my last miscarriage. We were high on the list when I got pregnant again. It shouldn’t be long before a baby’s available for us.”
“And we’ve figured out that we don’t live that far from each other,” Leann said. “Teri’s in L.A., and I’m in San Francisco. I travel a lot for my interior design business. It would be easy to get together once or twice a month.”
“We might start a gourmet supper club,” Teri said. “One time, we’ll meet at Lee’s house. The next time, mine.”
“And we’ll make lots of fish dishes.” Leann glanced at the salmon fillets waiting for the oven.
“The bump’s starting to show for your cousin,” Teri said. “By the time Thora has her baby, Dave and I might have ours.”
“And I can be an unofficial auntie.” Leann glanced at the sun, farther in the west. “But we’d better show you our landscaping before we run out of time.”
They led her to the new beds they’d planted along the low brick walls that set off the patio overlooking the lake.
“What do you think?” Leann asked.
“You’ve done a ton of work.” Currie put Thumper down and let him explore under the azalea and forsythia bushes that hugged the base of the wall. Rhododendrons anchored the higher sections of the garden near the far corners of the patio. Perennials formed sweeping beds in front of the bushes. Gracious curves were laid out with a garden hose, and the women had ripped grass out of some of them, but there was still a lot to do. “You’re ambitious. This could take the whole month you’re here.”
“This is just the start,” Teri said. “Wait till I get home.”
Leann laughed. “Her husband’s going to be lucky if he gets to keep any grass.”
They were discussing their flower choices when Currie looked up and saw Trisha hurrying out of the woods toward them. Tears streamed down her cheeks. She staggered once and righted herself. Currie ran to her. “Are you all right?”
“I swear I locked the cage door. At least, I think I did.” Trisha put her hands over her face to hide her eyes, took a deep breath, and tried to calm herself. “He’s just a baby. We have to find him.”
Leann laid a hand on Trisha’s shoulder. “How can we help?”
Currie explained. “Brie assigned Trisha to the animal nursery for her chore here.”
“And I love it!” Trisha’s words ran together. “The animals are wonderful, they appreciate everything I do for them, unlike my mom.” Her mouth turned down.
“Your mom can’t help it,” Currie said, remembering Trisha’s file. “Dementia isn’t a choice.”
“I know, but it’s so hard when she blames me every time I visit her for putting her in the nursing center.”
“You’re doing the best you can for her.”
“It’s just not fair!” Trisha brushed at her eyes again. “First, dad died. Now, I’ve lost mom. I mean, she’s here, but she’s not mom anymore.”
“Does working with the animals upset you?” Currie worried if they’d put her in the right place. “If it makes you think about your parents…”
“No, it’s not that! They do help. But the baby possum’s gone. He’s so cute. A bunch of fuzz. I take him slices of apples. He comes to the cage door to see me. He and the fawn are my favorites. They’re so gentle.” She broke off, shook her head. “His door’s open. He’s too little. He needs me.”
“He can’t have gone far. He knows where his food supply is. When an animal gets out, it usually comes back. Saffron has to train the young ones how to live in the wild again.”
Trisha took deep breaths of air. “You’re right. My cat got out once, and it stayed away for two days. I thought I’d die, but he meowed at the door the third night. This is different, though. There are things that could hurt Fuzzy on the island.”
Currie smiled at the name Trisha had given the possum. Appropriate now, but possums weren’t nearly as cute when they got older. At least, not in her opinion. “The foxes and wolves don’t come around the animal nursery. There are too many human scents there.”
“That makes sense.” Trisha relaxed more.
“It’s almost supper time,” Currie said. “Why don’t we eat and then Saffron and I will help look for Fuzzy? I can cancel my woodworking class for one evening or let people work on their own. I bet Fuzzy hasn’t gone far. He’s probably asleep under a log or bush.”
Leann took one side of Trisha and Teri took the other. “We’ll join the possum hunt. We’ll find the little fellow.”
“Thanks.” Trisha allowed herself to be jollied into a better mood.
Currie whistled for Thumper, and the women walked back into the lodge. Before setting up the buffet, Currie hurried to the art room and tacked a sign--“I won’t be available this evening”--to the door. Ward stopped to read over her shoulder. She could feel his body heat radiate up and down her spine. When he moved this close, he was almost too much temptation. She wanted to turn and press herself against him.
“Got a hot date?” he asked.
Stick to business, she warned herself. “Trisha lost her baby possum. I’m going to help look for him.”
“Can I volunteer too?”
Her heart gave a happy lurch. “Sure. We plan to look after supper.”
“Give me a heads up, and I’ll be there.”
It would be better if he paired up with someone else, she decided on her way to the kitchen. She’d be safer. But after supper, when Saffron motioned for them to follow her to the animal nursery, Ward fell into step beside Currie.
“Are all of the animals in the nursery babies?” he asked.
“No, most of them are grown.”
“And they get hurt on the island? I thought this was sort of like paradise.”
“Owls still hunt. Foxes and wolves still eat meat. Nature is nature.”
It was a twenty-minute walk to the secluded haven where they kept the wounded animals. Saffron advised them to start looking on their way. People fanned out and looked under fallen logs, on low tree branches, anywhere a young possum might hide. Once they reached the pens and hutches that held a fawn who’d lost its mother, an owl with a broken wing, a fox pup who’d gotten too close to a porcupine, and the other small animals Saffron had rescued on her walks, they decided to set off in an ever-widening circle to cover as much area as possible.
“Ward, why don’t you and Currie work together toward the west?” Saffron said. “Teri and Leann can head east. Brie and Avery can go south, and Trisha and I will go north.”
They spread out and searched even more thoroughly. Saffron assured them that the possum wouldn’t go far. Ward and Currie had walked for half an hour when they came to one of the nature trails that circled the island.
“We’ll walk fifteen minutes to the left. If we don’t see anything, we’ll double back and go to the right,” Ward said.
They didn’t talk much, stooping to look under bushes, craning their heads to look at tree branches. The path curved and Ward stopped abruptly. He put a hand on Currie’s elbow, as if to support her. She followed his gaze and took a sharp breath. The possum’s body was impaled to a tree trunk, a butcher knife stabbed through its abdomen. The tree’s leaves were drooping, some of them falling off.
“Is he…?” Currie asked.
Ward put a finger on the limp body. “Dead. Bled to death.” He looked at the tree. “It looks like the tree’s dying too.”
“No, it’s suffering.” She tried to pull the knife from its trunk, but couldn’t.
Ward put a foot against the bark and yanked. The knife came loose and the possum fell to the ground. Not playing dead this time. Killed. Ward started to unbutton his shirt and Currie said, “What are you doing?”
“We can’t leave him here. Trisha needs to see him, to bury him. For closure.” He had a sleeveless tee on under his shirt, and Currie stared at the hard muscles that strained against the thin material. Easy, girl, she told herself. But when she glanced at the small body that Ward wrapped in his shirt, her lust withered.
The tree reached a branch toward her. It looked so sad, so traumatized, she went to it. She wrapped her arms around its trunk and leaned her head against its bark. “I’m sorry you were used this way. Please heal. I’ll send Saffron later.”
The leaves lifted slightly and grew greener.
Ward stared. “Who are you people? WHAT are you?”
“We have a special affinity with Nature.”
He shook his head. “I feel like I’m living in a damn terrarium where everything’s in perfect balance.”
“WAS in balance,” she corrected him.
“I could swear, sometimes, when I sit under the willow tree that it talks to me. Am I losing it here?”
How to explain? “The willow was my dad’s favorite tree. He used to sit under it. It misses him.”
“Can a tree miss someone?”
“Nature’s alive. Why wouldn’t it get attached to certain people?”
He frowned. His black hair glinted in the fading light, and his dark eyes were filled with questions. “And this tree?”
“The things on this island have never seen murder. They’ve seen animals kill their prey, snakes eat mice, hawks eat chipmunks. But this is different. This isn’t about survival.”
“So the whole island’s attuned to balance?” Ward asked.
“That’s the beauty of it here.” She glanced at the bundle in his shirt. “This changes things. It’s not natural. Who’d do something like that?”
“A sick person,” he said. “And it’s time you take that seriously.”