Dana slowed the car and turned from the highway onto the one-lane access road. Next to her Greg stirred and woke from his doze. "We there yet?" He squinted out the window.
"Almost." She eased her speed a bit more; she knew from long experience the track was a little rougher from here on in. "Another half mile or so."
"When you said this was in the country you weren't kidding. We've been on the road for hours." Greg sat up a bit and winced. He shifted his bad leg and rubbed his thigh. "I'm really looking forward to hiking over an entire football field of poison ivy and sumac to get to the front door, presuming it has one."
"One hour, and it does," Dana said mildly, and hid her amusement.
"I'm glad you think it's funny." The harsh tone revealed the extent of his anxiety. "I guess it never occurred to you that if something happens you'll be carrying me out of this jungle."
"Gregory, it's upper Bucks County, not the Amazon." She took the car around the bend and smiled. "Here we are."
She loved this part of the journey, as the house was revealed gradually. It was a fieldstone cottage, the walls braced and framed by heavy timbers, with a low, wide front door, casement windows and a chimney at both ends. She had found it by accident and fallen in love at first sight, despite its derelict state. That love had overcome considerable obstacles, which included a renovation that involved gutting the entire interior, the addition of wiring and plumbing, and an extensive cleanup of the grounds. The outside work she'd done herself, after the heavy clearing had been accomplished. She'd spent quite a few weekends here to paint, refinish, seal floors and plant; she slept and cooked in a battered, leaky old camper she'd bought on craigslist as a temporary shelter, but her privations had paid off. Now she savored the beauty before her as she pulled the car up to the side, put it in park and shut off the motor.
"Welcome to our country place," she said, and leaned over to kiss Greg's cheek. He accepted it, his eyes on the scene in front of him. He said little as they got out, just surveyed the surroundings, his expression impassive as he shouldered his backpack and leaned on his cane. Dana got her duffel bag and came around to stand at his side. "Shall we?" she asked softly, and extracted the front door keys from her purse.
The house was quiet. Dust motes floated through the morning sunshine as she unlocked the door, gave it a little shove because it always stuck a bit when it hadn't been opened for a while, and entered. Greg followed, moving slowly. Dana set her bag by the couch and went into the kitchen. She knew it would be better to let him get used to the surroundings on his own terms, and in his own time. He disappeared as she brought the groceries in from the car.
She had just set out a pair of mugs when he came into the kitchen, his expression one of wary scrutiny. As she opened a bag of coffee he said "You bought this place with your father in mind."
Dana stuck the measuring scoop in the coffee. "Yes," she said.
"So it's set up for someone in the process of dying."
"No, he never stayed here. Neither has anyone else, just me."
Greg studied her. "Never," he said, sounding skeptical. Dana put the scoop down and turned to face him.
"Mon pere didn't care much for country living in the first place, but after he was diagnosed he was terrified of being without immediate access to a hospital." She looked around the kitchen at the painstaking work she'd put in, the soft natural colors she loved, the refinished, gleaming woodwork, the original wavy, bubbled panes of glass in the windows. "I tried to get him to visit, but he absolutely refused. It was foolish of me to expect him to come here when it was my dream to own this place, not his." She ran her hand along the edge of the stone sink. "Anyway, it's mine. And now it's yours too, if you like. But it's not set up to coddle you, you have my promise."
Without a word he limped out of the kitchen. Dana heard him move slowly through the main room; a moment later the bathroom door opened and shut. She returned to making coffee, and tried hard not to give in to the anxiousness she felt.
A short time later Greg returned. He said nothing, just stood in the doorway. She put some croissants on a plate along with strawberry jam. "Have a seat," she said. He came into the room, sat down at the table, his gaze still on her.
"You're seriously saying you haven't brought anyone else here, even though you have that great big bed in the master bedroom."
Dana removed the coffee carafe, filled with fresh brew. "No, I haven't."
He didn't speak right away. "No cable or internet, I take it."
"Yes, there's cable and internet. And a working landline because reception can be iffy in bad weather," she said in mild exasperation. "Sometimes I spend a few days or a long holiday weekend here, as we're doing now. It's not convenient or private to go into the village and do all my work in a café just because it has wi-fi. And I do watch tv now and then, you know." She didn't mention the exorbitant price she'd paid to get the cable and wiring put in from the highway back to her property. "I just don't come here to sit in front of a computer or television."
"You wanna get away from it all." Greg pushed his mug toward her. Dana filled it and gave it back to him, poured some coffee for herself and sat down.
"I come here to be me," she said simply. Greg added a heaping teaspoon of sugar to his mug and stirred.
"Why don't you get rid of the house in town then?"
Dana put some table cream in her coffee. "Because this house is special," she said slowly. "Making this my permanent address would turn it into . . . part of my everyday life. This place . . ." She looked around the kitchen, at the sunshine in the windows that caught the sparkle of the glass ornaments she'd bought in Stockholm on a tour years ago. "In my work I have to set myself aside to listen carefully, or be someone I'm not to help others heal. I don't mind, but sometimes it makes me feel a little lost at the end of the day. Here, I can just be me." She smiled. "Like I am with you," she said. Greg observed her, those vivid eyes searching, intense.
"'kay," he said finally, and gave a single brief nod.
After that he seemed to relax a bit. He drank the excellent coffee and ate two croissants slathered with jam, then stumped off once more. Dana got up to finish putting the groceries away. She was nearly done when Greg came back. He wore a clean tee shirt, jeans and . . . flipflops. Dana gave him a startled glance. He raised his brows at her. She put the last of the meat—a whole chicken to be roasted later—in the refrigerator, closed the door and leaned against it, arms folded.
"Interesting footwear. Care to join me out back?" she said mildly.
In the warmer months, the screened porch was her favorite room in the entire house. She'd worked long and hard to make it a natural extension of the living space, one that moved it into nature while it protected the occupants. The result had exceeded her expectations. The warm air was already full of fragrance from the flowers and herbs planted close to the foundation, something she'd done deliberately; the stones would soak up heat from the rising sun and hold it throughout the day, to create a microclimate of warmth that encouraged early growth and flowering. Wicker chairs with thick cushions offered comfortable seats, with colorful rag rugs scattered over the stone floor, and floor lamps to make pools of light in the evenings. But it was the view she loved most. The cottage sat at the top of a long, sloping meadow, with pastures and stands of trees beyond. Above them rose low hills, dusky green in the bright sun. She never tired of watching the day move across this quiet landscape.
With a slight groan Greg settled into the chair next to hers. He stretched out his legs slow and careful, then folded his hands across his belly and stared out at the scenery. "Nice view," he said.
""Yes, it is." Dana set her coffee cup on the table between them.
They sat in silence for about thirty seconds. Then Greg heaved himself out of the chair, grabbed his cane and limped into the living room. A few moments later Dana heard the tv come to life. She rolled her eyes but couldn't help a smile.
The day progressed in relative peace. Greg took a long nap on the couch with the tv tuned to a baseball game. Dana roasted the chicken and made oven fries, as well as a salad. She chose a fine dry Riesling to go with supper—with hers anyway, since Greg would probably have beer.
He came in as she took the chicken from the oven. As she'd suspected, he snagged a beer from the fridge. Soon enough they sat at the table. Dana had put on music—Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith—but apparently it wasn't enough to break the silence. "Too damn quiet," Greg said under his breath, as he took a large piece of breast meat. "I'd forgotten what it's like in the sticks."
Dana sipped her wine. "If it really bothers you, you can go back to Princeton and pick me up on Sunday," she said. Greg paused with his fork stuck in a wad of oven fries.
"You want me to leave already."
"No, I don't want you to leave. But I also don't want you to stay just because . . . This-this is supposed to be enjoyable for both of us . . ." She paused. "Did I presume too much again?" She hated how uncertain she sounded. "I'm sorry—I thought . . ."
"Gardener." He waited until she looked up. "I'll get used to it. Eat your damn rabbit food." He stuffed the fries into his mouth, chewed, swallowed and drank some beer. Dana put down her glass, her appetite fled. Quietly she got to her feet and left the kitchen, to go out on the porch. The sun had started to set, and threw long shadows over the meadow. She put her hand on the doorframe, felt the old wall of the house under the thick plaster, cool and strong, and bowed her head. Maybe I shouldn't share this with anyone, she thought. Maybe it's better just being my place. I'm used to the silence, even like it, but most people have good reasons to find this unappealing . . .
A short time later she felt Greg come up behind her. His hand came to rest on her shoulder. They stood together for a few moments.
"When I was little, we lived in a beautiful house in Paris," Dana said after a time. "I loved it there. It was very old, and it showed all the centuries of people living in it, but in a good way. It always felt warm and peaceful. And then maman got sick and died, and mon pere sold the house without a second thought." She shivered a little. "Just . . . sold it, and we moved away. For a long time my heart ached for my home. Years later I tried to buy it, but it had been demolished for some reason, a fire, I think. And I realized I'd have to—to make my own place." She drew in a deep, slow breath. "When this house was being renovated, I understood finally that my childhood home still existed, just inside me. And I could take it to anyplace I wanted. So this house is what I chose. If you—" She hesitated. "If it makes you uncomfortable . . ."
Greg gave her a gentle squeeze. "Your dinner's getting cold," he said quietly.
They were on the couch to watch highlights from that day's baseball game as they enjoyed strawberry shortcake made with the first berries of the season, when Greg said "Stop worrying about whether I like it here or not. You said there was no coddling. I'll let you know if there's a problem."
Dana ate a bite of shortcake. "Do you? Like it, I mean?" She knew it was wrong to push, but she had to know. Greg sighed.
"It's very much yours," he said. She heard the uncertainty in his voice.
"There's a small spare bedroom," she said. "If you would like an office or a study or a—what d'you call it—"
"Man cave," he supplied. One corner of his mouth twitched up in a slight half-smile.
"Yes, that—it's yours."
Greg ran a finger around the edge of his bowl to get the last of the whipped cream. "What's upstairs?"
"It's a loft. I use it as an office sometimes."
"That leaves no place for visitors." He set the bowl aside and dipped his spoon into her half-eaten portion.
"I sort of decided . . . not to ever have visitors here," Dana said softly. Greg fished out a large strawberry and popped it into his mouth. He observed her as he chewed slowly. She could see the thoughts flit through that clever mind, the quick realization of what she'd said, the comparison with what she'd said earlier.
"Study," he said at last. Dana nodded.
She washed up the dishes while he went around to turn off lights. "That can wait till tomorrow," he said.
"It's not a good idea to leave food or dirty dishes out." Dana put a bowl in the rack and gave in to the desire to tease. "We get bears here, you know."
Greg stopped as he reached for the pull-down lamp over the table. "You're full of it."
"No, it's the truth."
He glanced at the dark window. "Bears. Holy shit, Gardener."
Dana chuckled. "I'm headed for bed. Care to join me?"
She knew he would like the bed at least. It was a large four-poster; the mattress was new, not too firm, and there were plenty of pillows. She'd put a carafe of water and a plate of croissants on the nightstand where Greg had deposited his meds. He emerged from the bathroom and limped to the bed. He paused, picked up a croissant.
"Great, lead the bears here first," he said.
"I'm not worried. They're on your side of the bed," Dana said, and laughed when the croissant landed in her lap.
They fell asleep together, curled up under the covers in the velvet darkness.
Over a late and leisurely lie-in the next morning Greg said "I want a piano." He sounded defensive.
Dana stretched a little. "Okay," she said. It was something she'd considered before herself.
"It would have to be electronic. Too many temperature changes for an upright."
She nodded. "Would you like to get one today?"
Greg turned on his side a bit to face her. "The whole point of being here is to get away from big bad civilization."
Dana put her hand to his cheek. "We are allowed to venture into town," she said wryly, and raised her brows. "Up for a short road trip?"
She took him to a little place in Buckingham, a store with everything from a Steinway baby grand to child-size keyboards. The salesman steered them toward a Casio digital with pedals and recording capability. "The action is pretty decent," he told them as Greg tried a bluesy riff. "It's not a grand, but it sounds great."
They returned home with the piano and takeout from the Thai place next to the store. While Dana got the food ready Greg put the instrument together, a fairly simple operation. She had just taken down plates when music filled the house, sweet, a little sad, utterly beautiful; it was the Chopin waltz she'd played months ago in his apartment. Dana stood listening, enthralled. Slowly she set down the plates and went to the doorway to find Greg seated at the piano, head bowed as his fingers moved over the keys. She watched him, the way he entered the music, made it his while he allowed the phrases their expression, and knew without doubt her home—their home now—had been given a heart at long last. The knowledge brought tears to her eyes, humbled by this gift.
At last the piece ended. Greg looked up at her, his gaze still a bit unfocused. Dana came into the room to stand by him. She leaned down, took his hand in hers, raised it to her lips, brushed a kiss over the backs of his fingers. He broke free gently and wiped a tear from her eye, touched her cheek. "Starving musician here," he said at last. Dana smiled.
"Everything's ready." She waited while he got to his feet, offered her arm as support. He eased into her hold without hesitation, and moved forward with her into the sunlit kitchen.