Jessica – ‘Chessie’ – returns home to the States after a long absence. She has a lot on her plate. Her long-time partner has died, leaving her to care for their daughter who is recovering from a devastating bout of meningitis. Olivia is recovering nicely, but Chessie is smothering her, out of fear that she may lose her last connection to Coralle, Olivia’s birth mother. In addition to caring for her daughter, who is growing up faster than she likes, Chessie must also care for her ageing parents. The stress takes its toll on Chessie and everyone around her.
Chessie’s fear looks to everyone else like impatience, mistrust, and snobbishness. She has a bounty of support in her extended family, but pushes them away in droves. That is, until Maître Édouard takes an interest, and sets about helping her deal with her issues and let go of her fear.
The Maître teaches the children to dance, and teaches Chessie to surrender. He is patient and caring with the children under his care, which Chessie finds attractive – and which inspires her trust, igniting a long dormant passion.
However, will Édouard’s no nonsense approach to teaching Chessie do more harm than good? How long will she be able to resist his ‘charms’? Can she learn to love again?
Publisher’s Note: This book contains spanking scenes involving adults. If such material offends you, please do not purchase.
Chessie steered her rental car carefully into the driveway and slowly down a long row of cars parked on the side of the road. High-school aged kids in neat dress shirts with ties and badges on lanyards directed the vehicles. She lowered the window and handed over the two tickets Calum, her ex-husband, had sent her. The young woman read them and nodded as she returned them.
“Peng! Take Ms. Lee down to parking area H!” Chessie opened her mouth to protest —her disabled daughter couldn’t walk far. The young woman grinned at her. “It’s right next to the boardwalk: our handicap accessible area.”
She closed her mouth abruptly, nodded graciously to the girl and drove after the young man trotting down the gravel road. She left the window down. Livvy, her sunshine child, quietly sitting in the back, spoke up. “It smells a bit like home, A-ma, doesn’t it? A bit like Wales. Not like New York City.”
Chessie didn’t look over her shoulder. She’d been a nervous driver for years, since her partner, Livvy’s birth mother, had died in a crash. “Yes, it does, Livvy. This smells good to me, but I grew up about fifty miles from here in New York. We’d come out to the woods every summer for a few weeks.”
“It makes me think of home. I miss the mountains and forests in Wales. But I guess this is going to be home? Will we go back to live in Wales?”
Chessie sighed. She’d been all over the world, but Livvy had only Wales in her memory. “This is only home if you want it to be, lovey. Home is where your heart is. We may wander the world, but our homes are always in our hearts. It’s not really a place because places change. And yes, we won’t be returning to Wales to live for a few years, at least.”
She had hidden through her intense mourning in the Welsh mountains after Coralle’s death. Then had come Livvy’s horrific episode of meningitis. Once Livvy was out of the ICU and the wards, she’d used the isolation of her little house in the mountains to keep her daughter safe as she relearned everything, from talking to walking to eating. The brain damage had been extensive, but Livvy’s youth and Chessie’s determination had brought about an amazing recovery, though it was far from done.
But there had been a price, one she had only gradually become aware of. The cheerful hedonist, out to grab and eat the world in huge, well-savored gulps had disappeared. She’d become introverted, isolationist, and her intense protectiveness towards Livvy was a problem on many levels. Her last screaming encounter with a nurse who disagreed with her had brought a severely correct and polite ombudsman to tell her that she was endangering her child’s recovery and would be asked to leave if it happened again.
So, when her mother had called her a few days later and mentioned casually that they were going to find an assisted living center, Chessie took the opportunity to break her isolation. She was needed in the States; she would help. Not that her mother had asked! Chessie fumed silently for a few minutes, waiting for a car to back out and re-park. Her guide helpfully waved his arms, trying to coach the driver properly into the space with enough room on each side to get in and out of all three cars.
But then, Chessie thought a little bitterly, her parents had never trusted her as they trusted her older brothers, not since her abrupt elopement with Calum. But her brothers had married Americans with no Asian blood, and their wives did not have the whole “support the husband’s parents” thing in their blood. There was only Chessie to help.
Fourth generation US citizen or not, she still was a dutiful Chinese daughter. Chessie’s parents needed her, so she was back in the USA.
She carefully parked her rental in the spot the young man signaled. He trotted off and Chessie put it into park, set the brake, and switched the car off. She heard the passenger door open. “Wait, Livvy, wait! I don’t want you to trip on the gravel!” she called, hastily opening her own door and swinging her feet out. The seatbelt caught her and slammed her back into the car. She could feel her frustration boiling at the click clack sounds of Livvy lifting the crutches out of the car. She fumbled at the button, missed twice and finally managed to pull it away and struggle out, yanking on her purse and the two jackets. The purse snatched her back off balance. As a precaution in New York City, she’d belted the purse to the other seat’s buckle and had to duck back in to release it. She could hear Livvy release her own seat belt and wriggle around to bring her legs over the side of the seat. She pulled out, stuffing the electronic key back into her purse. “Livvy, wait! It’s a long step down!”
“A-ma, it isn’t! This is the handicapped spot. See! The boardwalk comes out to here.”
Chessie clicked her tongue as Livvy placed the crutches on the walk, and slid from the seat, her arms held by the cuffs and her hands gripping the bars, all before Chessie could clear the rear bumper and come up to her. Livvy set off up the boardwalk, her halo of blonde hair an aureate accent in the cathedral-like greenness that surrounded the parked cars.
Chessie frowned as she closed the door and dug back into her purse for the electronic key and thumbed the car locked. It beeped and she set off after Livvy, catching up with her as she paused politely for an elderly couple to come past her, the man with a walker and the lady in a motorized chair. She cast a quick, nervous glance at the Norris Neck Wildlife Center through the tall trees, calculating the distance. It was probably less than fifty yards, but it made her frown. It might be easy for somebody in a powered wheelchair.
The man smiled down at her sunshine child. “Hello!” he said to Livvy. “Fine evening, isn’t it?” He nodded courteously to Chessie.
Livvy smiled up at him. “Do you want to go first?”
“No,” said his wife. “I like to go slow. He’s not as fast as I am. I keep telling him it’s time he got a wheelchair and we can have wheeling races!”
The old man leaned forward a bit. “I can go as fast as you, if I have to!”
“Oh, hush, old man!” she answered, fondness in her voice, as Livvy swung ahead.
Livvy laughed and looked back. “I’m not supposed to use wheelchairs. Dr. Pugh says my legs can get stronger, but I have to work at it!”
Chessie smiled politely at them and stepped after Livvy, bristling a bit. She called herself to order. The raw feeling that everybody was judging her kept coming back to haunt her. I’m expecting everybody to judge me these days, she thought ruefully. Even Calum sets me on edge sometimes. I keep expecting him to say something to me, and he’s never done that! She worried at that thought while pacing Livvy. The truth was that ever since Livvy had been so sick, she’d felt the world was stacked against her.
Other people walked along the boardwalk too, but they all hopped down and got on the gravel path as Livvy stumped forward on her crutches, and waved cheerfully. Most people were very well dressed, so Chessie relaxed a bit. Her ox-blood red leather pants with the burnt-sienna top fit well in the crowd. The evening was much cooler under the trees, but still too warm to wear her ox-blood jacket.
“People look nice, A-ma.”
“They do, Livvy. This is a big thing. The Norris Neck Wildlife Center is doing a fundraiser. It’s two hundred and fifty dollars and up for a ticket.”
Livvy twisted around to look up. “That’s a lot of money, A-ma. I didn’t know you were that interested in wildlife.”
Chessie laughed. “I’m not not interested, Livvy-lovey. Any artist is always interested. But the artist who did the big display here is your Uncle Luke, who married your Aunt Anneka a few months ago, remember? He and your Uncle Calum sent me the tickets.”
Livvy smiled and stumped forward, her eyes on the brightly lit center. Chessie walked slowly behind her, approving the beautifully designed spread of glass, nearly thirty feet high and gently bending in an “S” curve. She’d seen pictures of the atrium and was eager to see how it was decorated. She remembered something and said, “Your uncle Calum is displaying a set of pictures and prints tonight. They’ll all be auctioned off later in the evening. I think your Aunt Anneka is displaying some pieces, too.”
“It’s so nice having another uncle, but I wish we could have gone to their wedding. I could have been a bridesmaid.”
Chessie laughed gently. “It was all so very sudden. Your aunt didn’t have any bridesmaids.” They walked up the path along the sweep around the atrium and into the door while Chessie wondered if Anneka had adequately prepared her new husband, Luke, for the spider web of relationships he had joined. Her own ex-husband, Calum, and she had two young adult sons, making Luke an instant uncle. That was simple enough. However, Anneka’s other brother was the sperm donor her partner, Coralle, had used which had resulted in Olivia: Livvy, the sunshine child of her heart. And while she considered Anneka her sister-in-law twice over because of that, the two women had been somewhat antagonistic when Chessie and Calum were first married. Over the years they’d become fast friends.
The large double glass doors to the atrium were open. A petite redhead stood just inside. She was wearing a gorgeous green silk dress with a beaded triangular drape over her chest and left shoulder. She smiled down at Livvy. “Good evening,” she said. “Welcome to the Norris Neck Wildlife Center.”
Chessie stepped up to Livvy’s side, holding out the invitations.
The woman took them with a happy smile and gave them a quick glance. “Ah! I thought that’s who I was seeing. Welcome Livvy! Welcome Jessica Lee. I’ve admired your art for years. My daughter, Jenny, is around somewhere.” She pivoted and waved a freckled white arm. Dodging and bouncing through the crowd came a child who looked to be Livvy’s age – nearly nine years old. She was wearing khaki shorts and a tailored white blouse under a khaki vest be-hung with birding paraphernalia.
“Jenny, this is Livvy Lee.”
Chessie grimaced. “Excuse me, Livvy is Peters-Lee!” she said, a little irritated. People always saw her as the only parent, and she never wanted Coralle Peters to be forgot.
The redhead gave a quick second glance at the tickets she was holding. “I beg your pardon,” she said. Warm brown eyes met hers, calm and a little watchful. “I forgot the name was compound. I made an assumption, and those are always subject to error.” She looked down at the children. “Excuse me, Livvy. Jenny, this is Olivia Peters-Lee.”
Jenny shot a glance up at Chessie and offered her hand to Livvy. “Hi! Welcome. Your Uncle Calum told me you were coming.”
“Jenny, how are you doing, showing the other children how to play with the birds?”
“It’s going well, Mom. I could use some help, though. There are a lot more kids than I thought there’d be.”
“More than Luke and Calum thought, too. We should have sold special children’s tickets so we’d have a count. We would have had a better idea of the crowd’s composition. Ms. Lee, would you allow Livvy to go help Jenny for a while? I’m sure she’d like to play with the birds, too.”
Chessie hesitated, feeling ungracious and anxious. Once again she met the eyes of the small woman before her and then the eyes of her child. Both radiated calm quietude. She could say “Yes” or “No” and they would simply accept it. But Livvy was looking up at her, raw desire in her face. Reluctantly she said, “Be very careful, honey!”
The two girls seemed to vanish from her sight though she knew Livvy couldn’t move that fast. “By the way, I’m Polly Nadel.” Polly extended her hand and Chessie shook it, bemused. “The cloak room is just over there, and the buffet near it.”
Chessie moved off as Polly greeted an elderly couple.
Chessie handed in her leather jacket and bag and Livvy’s warm jacket and shook out the full sleeves of her sheer silk blouse. She wandered farther into the room and studied the food being offered. Every few minutes she shot a glance through the crowd. She could occasionally hear Livvy’s happy voice calling out over the sound of the live music. But she couldn’t seem to locate her. Absently, she accepted a plate and a glass of wine from the young woman who had asked her what she wanted.
Her brows climbed as she sipped. Somebody knew their wines! A lot of money had gone into this party. Between the display and the food was a roped off area with a quintet made up of young teens. They were good, very good, up to a professional standard, she thought.
She felt a whisper of movement as her fine silk sleeve caressed her arm. She tilted her head slightly to see who had brushed near her. There was a man who was standing just a tad too close. Her wayward eyebrows tried to fly up and she held her face as impassive as she could. My! she thought, now here’s a looker. And I am very interested. It’s been years since I felt like this. But this one’s enough to break a nun out of her vows.
She struggled to keep her brows level. He was eyeable, that much was for certain. Then he smiled and she found herself grinning back, a grin such as she hadn’t felt crossing her face in many moons.
When he spoke, his words were very simple. “Such good young people,” he said. She approved the soft opening gambit.
There was a whisper of a foreign accent in his words, and it was as sexy as heck. “Good as in nice people or good as in excellent players?” she asked, still keeping herself under control. He was a tall tanned pool of Gallic charm, with shoulder length chestnut hair and warm green eyes. And clearly had lost all interest in the quartet and was focused entirely on her. As she met his eyes she could see the interest in them. She fought the blush she could feel climbing her cheekbones.
Chessie took a quick sip of wine. She felt herself so appreciated. He said, “Ces excellents musiciens!”
And Chessie snickered as she said, “Le quintet a clairement travaillé ensemble un certain temps…” and felt a bubble of glee at his double take and focused gaze.
Jenny came bouncing through the crowd before she could follow up on that. “Maître Édouard, Marie could not make it.” For an instant a wave of sorrow spread over the girlish face. “She had to go back to the hospital.”
“Ah!” said the man, his own focus on her completely broken. “Le pauvre petite!“
Chessie was going to step away when Jenny looked directly at her. “Marie’s role is seated, Ms. Lee. Could your daughter take it? Without her, the dance doesn’t make much sense.”
Chessie gulped as Édouard started and stared at her.
“The child Livvy is your daughter? She would be perfect. Already I see the grace in her movements. Now I see from where she takes her dignity! I was going to ask to be introduced to her parents.” He bowed. “I am Maître Édouard Le Hir, and I run a special dance school. One that includes many children who dance for the love of it, some with physical or mental handicaps.”
Chessie hesitated and became aware of Jenny’s peculiar quality of accepting stillness. But the Maître was not still. His expressive face was alight. “Go, Jenny!” he commanded. “Let la petite know I have said oui, and so has the good maman!”
Chessie gasped as Jenny darted off. “That was rather presumptuous of you,” she exclaimed looking up. “I hadn’t said…”
“No, but you were about to!” He leaned closer, his lips near her ear. “And thank you! Your daughter is much needed.” And leaving behind a faint lavender scent, he was gone.
Chessie found herself gaping after him and covered it with a considered sip at her wine glass. She carefully set it on a clean spot on the plate and picked up a petit four and nibbled, feeling quite amused. Now that is a man I could definitely consider. Oh, my, yes. How long has it been since I met a man who made me tingle?
“A-ma! A-ma!” Chessie laughed and looked down at her sunflower daughter with the sky blue eyes and flaxen hair. Right now her peaches and cream complexion was flushed and her eyes were sparkling. “A-ma! Jenny says they need somebody to help with the dance and I could do it! May I?”
“Maître Édouard has already assured me that I have given my permission,” she said tartly.
Chessie knew that Livvy had always been sensitive to her moods and she regretted her hasty words at once. As her daughter leaned against her waist she slid her hand down the soft curls, the familiar pressure of the crutch against her leg reminding her of all Livvy had gained in the past year. “Yes, Livvy-lovey, you may dance.” Livvy swung off, the rubber covered base of the crutches making tiny squeak-squeaky noises on the polished hardwood atrium floor.
Calum came up with the redheaded hostess, Polly. Calum bent to kiss her cheek. “Well, Chessie. I’m so glad you and Livvy made it. Where is she?”
“Somehow I gave her permission to take part in a dance,” she said, hearing the worry in her voice. “Now she’ll fall down. I shouldn’t have.”
Calum put his hand on her shoulder, his face creasing with concern, “Chessie?” he asked.
Polly smiled sympathetically up at her. “I know the dance very well. I assume she is taking Marie’s part. Livvy isn’t in any danger of falling doing that.”
“You need to lighten up,” Calum added. “You never were a helicopter mum with our boys. She needs to be a normal kid, too.”
Polly nodded. “I know it’s hard,” she said.
Chessie turned on the other woman.
“You don’t understand!” Chessie nearly hissed, her voice sharp and angry, but low so as not to attract attention. “You can’t understand what it’s like to watch a child come close to… to… to… death. To come out of it and fight her way back… the…”
She struggled to pull back, to stop playing the guilt card.
She turned abruptly, away from Calum, barely registering his comforting hand falling off her shoulder, and came face to face with Calum’s sister.
“Anneka,” she said, looking around for a place to set down her plate and glass. They were removed from her grip by another heartthrob. This one was the fellow in the wedding photographs and clearly belonged Anneka. She almost fell into the embrace of her favorite double sister-in-law, managing to swallow her tears of fear and frustration.
They’d never been very huggy and she saw a startled look in Anneka’s warm blue eyes as she pulled away. “You’re rattled. I can’t remember you ever being that mother-hennish over Alex or Will. They grew up pretty much free-range.”
Chessie swallowed, a sudden shudder of fear shaking her. “Are my boys here?” she asked, deflecting Anneka’s questions.
“No, but then they are so busy with school and their own lives.”
Chessie accepted back her plate from Luke. “You should eat,” he said, his pleasant baritone soothing.
Chessie opened her mouth to say ‘No’ in no uncertain terms. She hated being told what to do.
Anneka pulled her slightly aside. Quietly, her lips close to Chessie’s ear, she said, “Don’t make a fool of yourself. Livvy will be just fine. Cooping her up won’t save her from an illness she’s already over.”
Chessie opened her mouth to refute the ‘already over’ piece but she looked into Anneka’s eyes and gave in, reluctantly. Too many people were standing around them and she was feeling crowded and defensive.
“Now,” continued Anneka in a louder tone, “Let’s go and find seats. I’m looking forward to the dance. It is the centerpiece of the evening, after all.” She led the other four to the west end of the atrium where a staircase flowed to the ceiling in graceful iron curves pausing at a half floor and opening out into a large balcony where the iron was formed into railing, and then continuing upwards. Children ran down the stairs and sat on pillows while the adults began to take seats in the ranked chairs.
A sudden rap brought Chessie’s head around. The boy who had played the cello had put his instrument aside and now wielded a conductor’s baton. He waved it and she realized a number of other musicians had joined the group. Flutes began, and violins chimed in and she recognized Debussy’s The Afternoon of a Faun.
The lights dimmed and brightened on the area below the sweep of the stairs. And there was Livvy, sitting in tableaux, a very old fashioned camera in front of her on a tripod, and her blue and purple silk dress changed for something reminiscent of an Edwardian lady, complete with a large hat decorated in bright flowers and a gauze veil dotted with butterflies. Jenny, still in her safari outfit, stood next to her and began to dance. It looked as if she were following Livvy’s pointing hands.
Chessie was impressed by the two girls. She knew that with so little time to rehearse, Jenny must be giving Livvy subtle directions, but from the audience, it looked as if Livvy was in command.
Then Chessie tensed as Livvy swung the camera around, bright flashes erupting. Frantically she wondered what Livvy was sitting on, if it were stable enough for her to move. What if she fell? Then, squinting a bit, she saw a plain grey and silver rod, right by Livvy’s foot, and relaxed. The crutches were covered by a cloth, but next to her.
Boys and girls in bird and animal costumes and masks came dancing out, their movements a swirl of naturalistic patterns. It took Chessie several minutes before she appreciated that some of the children were also—she cringed at the euphemism—differently abled: one girl had a brace on her arm, and that arm did not lift as high as the other; a boy had the top of a surgical corset protruding from the neck of his owl costume. But they all knew their steps, and performed them without a flaw.
Livvy brought up a large sun and waved it once around, right to left, let it down and then lifted up a moon. Jenny hooked a hanger to it and all the children settled down in the front, facing the audience. Two sharp raps came from the young conductor’s baton and then a wonderful, clear tenor voice rang out, the soaring atrium capturing the sound perfectly.
Chessie looked over at the musicians. A rather non-descript boy with short lank brown hair was singing, and what a glorious sound he made.
Chessie tried to sit still, exchanging glances and smiles with Anneka, and ignoring Polly, who she hadn’t forgiven for butting in and being offensively sympathetic. The program went on for another hour and included two more dances.
The children in costume ran back and forth with the auction tickets and the best of the art was sold to raise funds. People were chatting back and forth. Behind her one of the volunteer coordinators enthused flatteringly over her willingness to let Livvy participate. At some point she agreed to help and do a series of drawings that children would like for the Center. Small and hyper-realistic pen and inks though it had been years since that medium attracted her.
When it was at last over, she stood hurriedly, with a quick, “Excuse me” to her family, and moved towards the staircase. Édouard met her at the foot. “How did Livvy do?” she asked. “I was so afraid you wouldn’t let her keep her crutches.”
“What an idea!” He looked shocked. “Livvy herself told us where to put them. She is a very self-sufficient young lady. She did well. She will be here in a minute. I want to talk with you about your daughter. She has the musicality; she loves the dance. She should be coming to learn, and also to make her legs more strong as she tells me her Dr. Pugh has instructed her! And it will give her pleasure as well as myself.”
“Ah, that is, uh, interesting that you should suggest it. But I’m based in New York right now.”
From behind her Anneka spoke. “True, but you are going to move near here as soon as you have your parents settled in a retirement home. Which means that Édouard will be a very good prospect for joining Team Livvy.”
Before Chessie could reject the idea out of hand, Édouard spoke, “And now, having planted the seed, I must bid you all good night and return to my dancers. Chessie, thank you so much for letting Livvy take part. As you Americans say, she saved the show.”
As she watched Édouard move away—oh, that dancer’s butt—she realized the center was starting to empty out. Chessie wondered where Livvy was and was about to go looking for her, when she spotted her daughter making her way across the room, stopping with grave self-possession to acknowledge frequent congratulations.
“At least you’ll have a chance to see Stobe House and the gorgeous apartment Calum lined up for you,” Anneka was saying. “Two bedrooms, a quaint common use living room right off our big kitchen, all on one floor. I was living there with Luke until we got the roof fixed, thanks to Calum, and then moved upstairs. And once you see the studio area, I expect you’ll move right in. And Chessie, I have so much to tell you once we get home tonight and Livvy is asleep.”
Chessie had agreed to spend the night in Stobe House only because she couldn’t face driving back to New York City so late in the night. She wasn’t going to move out here full time, no matter how helpful Calum had been. First she had to find just the right assisted living place for her parents. Then, she had to find a place near that place, but not with Anneka and Calum, too much family!
Now, the promise of a gossip, and discovering how Anneka, who had always been so shy of relationships had come to marry a man more than ten years her junior, made the idea more enticing. While she had withdrawn from people over the last few years, she missed Anneka.
“A-ma! A-ma! I loved dancing. I want to do more!” said Livvy.
Chessie smiled at her daughter, who was holding on to her crutches and shuffling her feet trying to do dance steps, her happy face abeam with delight. “Can we go, now? I want to see Uncle Calum’s huge house.”
“It’s not exactly my house,” Calum said smiling. “I share it with Luke and Anneka. I’d really like you to move out there.” He turned his attention to Chessie. “The boys have promised to come down sometimes on weekends. They don’t see enough of their little sister. And you need a real studio. Trying to work in your parents’ apartment isn’t really an option.”
“I’ll see it tonight or tomorrow morning. That’s as far as I’m prepared to go right now. No more pushing!”