Taming Natasha Page 13

The summer flowers had yet to fade, but the fall blooms were already staking their claim. Showy delphiniums vied with spicy scented mums, vivid dahlias with starry asters. Someone was caring for them. She could see fresh mulch on the flower beds, damp with watering.

Wanting a little more time, she studied the house. There were curtains at the windows, thin ivory sheers that would let in the light. Higher up she caught a glimpse of a fanciful pattern of unicorns that identified a little girl’s room.

She gathered her courage and crossed the porch to the front door. It would be quick, she promised herself. Not painless, but quick. She rapped, released her breath and waited.

The woman who answered was short and wide with a face as brown and wrinkled as a raisin. Natasha found herself fixed by a pair of small, dark eyes while the housekeeper dried her hands on the skirt of a stained apron.

“May I help you?”

“I’d like to see Dr. Kimball if he’s in.” She smiled, pretending she didn’t feel as though she were stepping into the pillory. “I’m Natasha Stanislaski.” She saw the housekeeper’s little eyes narrow, so that they nearly disappeared into the folds of her face.

Vera had at first taken Natasha for one of the señor’s students, and had been prepared to nudge her on her way. “You own the toy store in town.”

“That’s right.”

“Ah.” With a nod, she opened the door wider to let Natasha in. “Freddie says you are a very nice lady, who gave her a blue ribbon for her doll. I promised to take her back, but just to look.” She gestured for Natasha to follow.

As they made their way down the hall, Natasha caught the hesitant notes of a piano. When she saw her reflection in an old oval mirror, it surprised her that she was smiling.

He was sitting at the piano with the child on his lap, looking over her head while she slowly tapped out “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” The sun streamed in through the windows behind them. At that moment she wished she could paint. How else could it be captured?

It was perfect. The light, the shadows, the pale pastels of the room all combined to make the perfect backdrop. The alignment of their heads, their bodies, was too natural and eloquent ever to be posed. The girl was in pink and white, the laces of one sneaker untied. He had taken off his jacket and tie, then rolled up the sleeves of the pale dress shirt to the elbows like a workman.

There was the fragile shine of the child’s hair, the deeper glow of his. The child leaned back against her father, her head resting just under his collarbone; the faintest smile of pleasure lighted her face. Over it all was the simple nursery rhyme music she was playing.

He had his hands on the knees of her jeans, his long, beautiful fingers tapping the time in tandem with the tick of the antique metronome. She could see it all, the love, the patience, the pride.

“No, please,” Natasha whispered, holding out a hand to Vera. “Don’t disturb them.”

“You play now, Daddy.” Freddie tilted her head toward his. Her hair wisped around her face where it had escaped from its clips. “Play something pretty.”

“Für Elise.” Natasha recognized it instantly, that soft, romantic, somehow lonely music. It went straight to her heart as she watched his fingers stroke, caress, seduce the keys.

What was he thinking? She could see that his thoughts had turned inward—to the music, to himself. There was an effortlessness in the way his fingers flowed over the keys, and yet she knew that kind of beauty was never achieved without the greatest effort.

The song swelled, note after note, unbearably sad, impossibly beautiful, like the vase of waxy calla lilies that rested on the glossy surface of the piano.

Too much emotion, Natasha thought. Too much pain, though the sun was still shining through the gauzy curtains and the child on his lap continued to smile. The urge to go to him, to put a comforting hand onto his shoulder, to hold them both against her heart, was so strong that she had to curl her fingers into her palms.

Then the music drifted away, the last note lingering like a sigh.

“I like that one,” Freddie told him. “Did you make it up?”

“No.” He looked at his fingers, spreading them, flexing them, then letting them rest on hers. “Beethoven did.” Then he was smiling again, pressing his lips to the soft curve of his daughter’s neck. “Had enough for today, funny face?”

“Can I play outside until dinner?”

“Well… What’ll you give me?”

It was an old game and a favorite one. Giggling, she swiveled on his lap and gave him a hard, smacking kiss. Still squealing from the bear hug, she spotted Natasha. “Hi!”

“Miss Stanislaski would like to see you, Dr. Kimball.” At his nod, Vera walked back to the kitchen.

“Hello.” Natasha managed to smile, even when Spence lifted his daughter and turned. She wasn’t over the music yet. It was still pouring through her like tears. “I hope I haven’t come at a bad time.”

“No.” After a last squeeze, he set Freddie down, and she immediately bounded to Natasha.

“We’re all finished with my lesson. Did you come to play?”

“No, not this time.” Unable to resist, Natasha bent to stroke Freddie’s cheek. “Actually I came to talk to your father.” But she was a coward, Natasha thought in disgust. Rather than look at him, she continued to address Freddie. “How do you like school? You have Mrs. Patterson, don’t you?”

“She’s nice. She didn’t even yell when Mikey Towers’s icky bug collection got loose in the classroom. And I can read all of Go, Dog, Go.”

Natasha crouched so that they were eye to eye. “Do you like my hat?”

Freddie laughed, recognizing the line from the Dr. Seuss classic. “I like the dog party part the best.”

“So do I.” Automatically she tied Freddie’s loose laces. “Will you come to the store and visit me soon?”

“Okay.” Delighted with herself, Freddie raced for the door. “Bye Miss Stanof—Stanif—”

“Tash.” She sent Freddie a wink. “All the kids call me Tash.”

“Tash.” Freddie grinned at the sound of the name, then streaked away.

She listened to Freddie’s sneakers squeak down the hall, then took a long breath. “I’m sorry to disturb you at home, but I felt it would be more…” What was the word? Appropriate, comfortable? “It would be better.”

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