It was a winding road that led to the tiny Victorian cottage, tucked into a hill. Katy watched Vance with gilded eyes, scanning the handsome face, the bold 'Stewart' nose, finally resting on the inset dimple locked into his rugged right cheek.
"Maryland is gorgeous this time of year, eh Kate?" he queried, glazing his lips with a charming smile as he addressed her. "Almost perfect, wouldn't you say?"
Kate reverted her attention to the lovely drive, trying to focus on anything other than her unrequited lover. How could he just sit there so cool? So collected? Five years she'd given him. It deeply grieved her to know that he had casually tossed those wonderful years away for that-that rag muffin of a girl. Rather, Lani Darling, as she'd overheard Vance refer to her.
Three months ago, she would have trusted him with her life. Of course, all that had been washed away. The first encounter occurred when she had paid a surprise visit to Lance's office, hoping they could enjoy a romantic lunch together. There was an Italian 'hole-in-the-wall' that she'd went to with a friend one day, and the establishment served the best rosemary bread she'd ever tasted.
There, on the side of his desk, had rested Lani Darling in a red, low-cut dress supporting a silk scarf that Kate wanted to strangle the woman with. She had been whispering to Vance, and Kate could never erase the disturbed reaction on his face if she lived to be a thousand!
Oh, but Vance was slick. He had nonchalantly soothed over the moment, passing Lani off as a business acquaintance. Like an idiot, Kate had swallowed his ludicrous story, hook, line and sinker.
One month later, upon visiting that out-of-the way Italian restaurant, she caught them huddled together in a dark corner, their hands locked beside a wax-coated bottle, only the light of the flickering candle illuminating Vance's face as Kate slowly made her way to the table.
Awkwardly, he had attempted to explain the cozy situation, failing miserably. Lani had discretely vanished. Two weeks later, Vance had her eating out of his hand again, Kate feeling ridiculous and childish for ever believing he could cheat on her.
But everything changed last week. Kate made a decision to postpone her business trip and surprise Vance at home. He'd been so wonderful to her lately, especially by planning the romantic trip to a lovely Victorian cottage in Maryland.
Kate hurried home that day, pausing at the market to gather some fruit, cheese and wine. Vance and her were going to have the most romantic weekend!
She remembered everything. That's how it always is in the end. One takes in every sight, every sound, every movement...
She had turned her key in lock of the quaint manor which she and Vance called home, then she had quietly entered, the pungent smell of roses mingling with the air. Laughter, from the den. Then silence as Kate had made her way towards her worst fears. The kiss, Vance, Lani.
She had turned, unnoticed, slipped out the door, then had vanished into the fog of the early evening, a million thoughts circling in her head.
Kate heard herself ease out a painful groan, then looked at Vance as he drew her back to the present.
"Darling, you're crying," Vance observed, his brow tensed in confusion.
Vance felt utterly helpless. She was doing this again, this new crying saga that had seemed to become her familiar stage these days. Hell, what was wrong with her? Hormones? She was too young to be experiencing 'the change'. Wasn't PMS either. Well, whatever it was he wished to God that the Kate he knew and loved would soon resurface.
Surely she wasn't still obsessing over Lani? Jealously wasn't a 'Kate trait'. Besides, Lani was young enough to be his kid sister.
He reached over to clasp her hand, shocked when she suddenly pulled away.
Grimacing, he eased out, "My dear Kate, you're becoming the perfect ice maiden. It seems that every time I touch you..."
"Look, we're almost there," she jerked out, whisking away her tears and pointing to the lovely cottage in the distance. She needed to focus on something other than Vance right now. Besides, he couldn't possibly care why she was crying.
How romantic... A line of blue clouds surrounded the cottage, the elegant windowpanes mirroring the rays of the evening sun. A beautiful herb garden rested beside the house, the towering lavender waving in the cool breeze spun by the north wind.
Vance and Kate spent the next couple of hours settling into the cottage, both feeling acutely miserable. The owner of the cottage had set out a beautiful basket of fresh fruit. In the refrigerator a meal of chicken a la orange, baked potatoes, and julienne beans had been prepared for their evening meal. Homemade bread rested on a wooden board to accompany the romantic meal. However, at this point, neither Vance nor Kate felt like eating.
Vance had started a warm, cozy fire in the small den, asking Kate to join him. At his request, they settled in front of the fire and she tensed as he eased out thoughtfully, "There's a reason I brought you here, Kate. This seemed like the perfect spot and as we can both see, the brochure did not lie."
My God, he was going to do it! He was going to tell her about his rendezvous with that Lani slut. Suddenly, she could see, hear, smell, feel everything about her so intensely for this was the end - the flickering fire, the wood as it drifted up through the chimney shaft - her heart wildly quaking as it suddenly felt close to shattering…
She inwardly reeled as Vance continued his stabbing words, rising to collect something as he spoke to her. "Kate, this may not be the moment to do this, because I feel there's something askew in our relationship. Perhaps, it's a phase. Perhaps you don't love me anymore."
How could she not love him? He was like "Sara Lee" - nobody didn't like Vance Stewart!
"Nonetheless, my surprise can't wait a moment longer," he continued, collecting a rather large sealed package as he spoke that Kate hadn't noticed until now.
He drug the object over to their 'sitting' place, the fire being their only light.
"For you, my darling," he eased out with a twisted smile.
Kate shook her head, mystification meshing with her confusion.
"Well, open it, darling! Hurry, or I'll have to do it for you!" Vance laughed, encouraging her as he beckoned her.
Kate's hands shook. She was confused. What could this be? Vance was going to end their marriage, right?
Carefully, she eased away the packing, an exquisite full-length painting surfacing into view. Gracing a glance over the face of the portrait, Kate reeled. My God! It was her - Kate!
Her gaze flew to Vance, his deep wonderful laugh filling the room. "I do hope you like it, darling? Lani has indeed performed a masterpiece, don't you agree?"
Lani? Kate's eyes filled with tears, the situating dawning on her. My, all this time Vance had been meeting with Lani to secure this painting of her! This wonderful painting!
Vance was immediately beside her, taking her sobbing form into his arms. "Darling," he sighed, uncertain as to what to do. "Please, tell me what's wrong? I just want things to be like they were before. I feel as if I can't do anything to help. I-I feel so lost, so helpless without you."
He had to strain his ears as she jerked out between sobs, "Oh, darling, I thought you were... you-you were having an affair with her."
Vance tensed his brows together, his face lined with confusion. "Her? My God, surely not Lani?"
Then he eased out a mocking laugh and continued, "Kate! She's young enough to be my kid sister."
Kate sniffed, then corrected, "She's young enough to be your daughter, darling. However, I must admit that I assumed you were cheating. I-I thought I caught you kissing her-"
Vance instantly cut her off. "That's because you did, darling."
"You did. Oh, don't look so shocked, you conniving little Kate thing. And you're wondering what gave you away, eh?"
She nodded rather innocently and he continued, "I didn't see you, but I did take in an intense whiff of your perfume that evening. Actually, until this moment, I thought I had imagined that. But you were there, weren't you? In the wings, nosing around."
He paused, taking time to wipe away one stray tear. "Kate, I understand everything so clearly now. This would have been a lot simpler if you'd just come to me. Nonetheless, when I saw what a wonderful masterpiece that Lani had created, yes - I grabbed her and kissed her cheek! You must have saw, right?"
"Yes, I've been so...so naughty, darling. Oh, how could I? I-I love you so much, words just aren't enough."
"Ssshhh," Vance told her, placing an index finger over her warm lips. "I love you too, darling. I must admit, you had me worried. I thought my fair maiden had turned into an ice princess."
"Yes, darling, I did. But see these tears? You've melted all the coldness away."
The warm fire crackled beside them but it could not match the warmth they felt for one another.
- Story By Sky Taylor