Rhea Sinclair stood in the express lane, arms laden with groceries. Cash registers beeped all around her. Clerks, dressed in bulky orange smocks, didn't have time to notice the impatient frowns on customers' faces as the lanes filled in the late afternoon rush.
She had been on her way home when she remembered to stop at the market for some Monterey Jack cheese. Somehow she had ended up with a half dozen other essentials. Rhea's arm ached as she struggled to hold onto a half-gallon of milk, a stalk of celery, the cheese and the rest. She could feel the plastic bag containing the celery slipping.
What was taking so long? Was some ignorant moron using coupons in this -- the express lane? A peek over the shoulder of the man in front of Rhea revealed this very fact. A fat lady in a gaudy blouse and wide pink pants had a pile of cut-outs to give to the poor cashier. "Turkey!" Rhea hissed under her breath.
As she sighed in futility, Rhea caught someone staring at her. In the next line a man's gaze seemed to reach out and draw her toward him. A smile played on his lips and his brown eyes took her in.
Caught off guard, Rhea turned away. After a moment, she glanced at him and noticed his muddy, sweat-soaked T-shirt. Filthy jeans clung to his thin waist and flared out over a pair of well-worn, mud-covered cowboy boots. He had brown arms, broad shoulders and a tanned, muscular neck. Beneath spiky reddish-brown hair and dirt, he was actually attractive.
He must have sensed her observations, for he turned to look at her once again, this time sweeping Rhea from head to toe with those dark eyes that seemed to penetrate her very soul. She immediately diverted her gaze and felt a cold surge of panic rise within her. Pounding swelled inside her chest. She didn’t realize that the line was moving until the person behind her tapped her on the shoulder.
"Miss… you're next."
Rhea jerked as the voice behind her spoke. She noticed the clerk waiting and set her burdens down in relief. The cash register beeped as it recorded each item. The bag boy stuffed it all into Rhea's cloth bag while the checker murmured the total.
Aware of those brown eyes fixed on her again, Rhea fumbled through her backpack for her money. She knew that she was now the "turkey." The smooth, white, tapered tips of her fingers trembled, and she dropped the change onto the floor.
Somebody in line sighed impatiently as Rhea stooped to retrieve her coins. By the time she paid for her groceries and grabbed her pack and bag, the cowboy had left.
Rhea hurried outside the store to her bicycle at the racks. She balanced the groceries in the front basket, then swung her leg over, taking care that her long cotton skirt wouldn't catch in the spokes. Then she coasted out of the shopping center parking lot and began the climb up Mill Street.
Even in her sleeveless cotton shirt, she perspired as she pedaled past tourists in cars or on foot. The high temperature offered a sharp contrast to the cold she remembered from June of last year. Still, the dry heat was far more refreshing than the oppressive humidity of the Midwest, which -- after almost twenty-eight years -- she had left behind.
June usually wasn't this hot in Aspen. Last summer Rhea remembered June as a wet, rather cool month in the Rockies. Some cool mountain air would settle in by dark. This was one reason why she loved Colorado and had chosen to stay in Aspen after last fall.
She cherished the beauty and mystery of Aspen's surrounding mountains. They held her most cherished memories -- despite the horrors of her life last September. She could never leave them -- nor could she leave him.
In downtown Aspen, Rhea shared a second-story apartment with Mona Whitecloud, who was of Native American descent. Mona worked nights at Gustav's Restaurant, but tonight she had the evening off. Mona's straight black hair fell over her shoulders as she stepped into the kitchen, wearing a cream-colored halter that accentuated her plump figure.
"Geez Louise, it's stifling in here," complained Mona. "Let's go out and eat."
Rhea grabbed a hot pad and opened the oven door to check on dinner. "But I already baked your favorite quiche," said Rhea. "I’m afraid the oven made it hot in here."
"Well, in that case … let's eat out on the balcony."
They took their filled plates onto the patio. Rhea welcomed the coolness that came with the evening air, but she didn't think much of the small balcony, because the gas station across the alley obscured the view of Aspen Mountain. Also, the constant rush of traffic noise came from Main Street one block away.
"This is scrumptious," said Mona. "You know, you ought to sell your recipe to Gustav."
"I'm glad you like it, Mona. But just because you work for the guy doesn't mean he'd want my recipe." She watched the setting sun play with the highlights of Mona Whitecloud's black hair and cast a warm glow on her bronze skin. Envy wasn't a part of her nature, but Rhea sometimes wished she shared the Native American roots that gave her roommate that beautiful coloring.
The ripple of a flute floated into the alley, catching their attention. The neighbor downstairs had begun a practice session. As though the music reminded her of something, Mona asked, "Did you register for classes yet?"
"Not yet," Rhea replied. "I'll do that Wednesday."
"Do you audition then, too?"
Rhea nodded. She listened to the flute's melody and imagined herself in a grassy meadow surrounded by columbines and distant snowy peaks. Wednesday she would register at the Aspen Music School, where she had been on scholarship last summer.
Mona set her plate down after she was finished and wiped her mouth with her napkin. "Hey, I've got a great idea. Let's go to the Smuggler tonight."
Rhea groaned. "No … you go, if you want."
"Aw, come on, Rhea. You've been cooped up in this stuffy apartment all week, practicing the piano. You need a break."
Rhea sighed. "I know it's your night off, and I appreciate your concern, but … I'm not interested." The last thing Rhea wanted was to have Mona drag her off to some bar. That was Mona's thing. Rhea hated bars.
"What's it gonna hurt? One drink at one bar. Come on. Please … for me? Okay, Rhea?"
Rhea hated to hurt her roommate's feelings. Mona had been so patient during the past year, never bugging her when she insisted on being left alone. How often was it that Mona spent her precious evening off in Rhea's company?
"Well, how about it?" prompted Mona.
"I really should keep practicing…"
"The piano will still be here," insisted Mona.
Rhea hesitantly gave in, but the idea did not thrill her. "Just give me a few minutes to change clothes."
Mona did the dishes while Rhea went to her room. Rhea had the larger of the two bedrooms, only because it housed her Steinway piano. She could sit at the piano and view Bleeker Street and its array of well-kept Victorian houses, secluded by cottonwoods and well-groomed lawns. She stood before her closet and pondered which sun dress to wear. On impulse, she grabbed a sleeveless turquoise frock.
After she put it on, she went to the dresser and slid the brush through her long, honey-colored hair. She examined her face with the blueish-green eyes, slender nose and narrow shape of her face. In the mirror she discovered with sudden amazement how pale her skin was compared to Mona's rich tan. The long hours of practice indoors had taken their toll, the freckles dotting her arms and cheeks barely visible.
This is silly, Rhea thought to herself. We're only going to a bar. What does it matter who sees me? She was only going to please Mona, after all.
* * *
Dusk had settled in when they arrived at the Smuggler Bar in downtown Aspen. The walk from their apartment had revived Rhea's spirits. The climb down the stairwell to the tavern did not seem like such a dismal retreat into the unknown. Mona led her inside a dark, stuffy room, where they were greeted by smoke, loud country and western music, and beer smell. Even for this early hour, Rhea considered the place crowded.
"This is strictly a local's hangout," Mona explained. "Tourists don't usually come here." She nudged Rhea into a corner booth.
Rhea glanced around at both young and old faces. No one paid attention to her.
"Now, is this so bad?" asked Mona.
"Well, they could have better ventilation. And why is it so dark?"
A band of rowdy types at a table across the room snorted and roared with raucous laughter. Rhea noticed some of them wore cowboy hats. They surrounded two pitchers of beer, one half full. A couple of the cowboys had noticed Rhea and Mona in their corner and poked each other. Then one of them whistled.
The waitress appeared and took their order. Rhea requested a strawberry daiquiri while Mona ordered a beer.
"Ahh … Rhea Sinclair," rang out a masculine voice.
Rhea turned to face a massive man in a white shirt. In a moment she recognized the large round head, short blond hair and glasses. She grinned. "Jerome -- hello!" Swinging back to Mona, Rhea introduced her roommate. "Mona, I'd like you to meet Jerome Hodges, one of my friends from the Music School."
"Happy to meet you." Jerome extended a fat arm to Mona, and in his oafish fashion, knocked over a ketchup bottle. Pushing his thick glasses up further, he said, "Fancy meeting you here, Rhea. I just got into town today." Suddenly, a puzzled look crossed his pasty face. "I didn't think you were coming back this summer."
Rhea explained, "Actually, I've been in Aspen all year."
"Are you on scholarship again?"
Rhea shook her head. "Not this summer."
Jerome signaled to some friends at the bar. "Gotta go. Nice to meet you, Moriah. Talk to you later, Rhea."
After he was gone, Mona scrunched up her forehead. "Who was that?"
Rhea suppressed a smile. Jerome was terrible at names, but his heart was in the right place. She explained how she had met him last summer, when they had enrolled in two of the same classes at the Music School. "He plays French horn," she said, "and he’s very good."
The waitress brought their drinks. Rhea sipped at her daiquiri. It was too tart.
"He's not your type," Mona commented.
Rhea wiped her lips with the napkin. "Jerome and I are just friends, Mona. He's kind of like … my brother."
The table of cowboys started to get wild. They whooped and cheered, throwing out lewd remarks to anyone who passed by. The waitress went back and forth, undisturbed and distant. Rhea wouldn't have minded being in the bar except for this unruly bunch. She felt particularly vulnerable to their remarks and wondered how she and Mona were going to escape being their victims.
"You know, Rhea, I'm glad you're finally taking this first step," said Mona.
"What first step?"
"Facing the world. Coming out of your shell." Mona lowered her voice. "I've got to hand it to you. I truly admire you for not leaving Aspen after last fall. If I had been in your place …"
Mona's voice tapered off as Rhea noticed a familiar figure who had just joined the rowdy group of cowboys. Something pricked to life within her, causing her heart to flutter. It was the man she had seen in the grocery store earlier. He had changed into a clean western shirt and jeans, and his hair was combed. She was right. He was quite attractive. She studied his strong, slender body, the shoulders broad and well formed.
For a startling second, he caught her gaze. She quickly looked back at Mona, who was still rambling. "I can understand your wishing to keep his memory alive, Rhea. But it's hard having to explain to people who come over and see all those pictures of Parker lying around. What am I supposed to tell them?"
Rhea hadn't been aware of the heavy ground Mona treaded. "I didn't know keeping pictures of Parker around bothered you, Mona."
"Don't be silly. It doesn't bother me, Rhea," said Mona. "It's just kind of … of … morbid."
Before Rhea could respond, she looked up and found the man from the grocery store standing over her. He smiled down at her and she smelled a mixture of odors -- hay and leather, but mostly alcohol. He weaved a little.
"Hullo," he greeted her in a deep voice. His words slurred together as he asked, "Hey, haven't we met somewhere before?"
Mona took charge of the situation. "As if you couldn't think of a better line than that! Get lost, jerk!"
Rhea knew it wasn't a line, but she didn't say anything
Stifling a burp, the man backed away from them. Insults came from the table across the room. "Struck out, eh?" and, "That's what you get when you stick around horses all day!" They laughed at him, only Rhea was the one who felt embarrassed. Heat rose to her cheeks as she stared into her drink.
"Why are you blushing?" Mona picked up her glass and drank. "Don't let it get to you."
Rhea sipped her daiquiri. She didn't want to act like a fool in front of Mona, who was composed and self-assured at all times. But her hand trembled as she set the glass down.
"You really are a bundle of nerves," said Mona.
"Who was he?" Rhea asked in a low voice. "Do you know him?"
"I've seen him around." Mona scanned the table of cowboys. "His name is Trey Michaels. Unless I'm mistaken, he works out at the Nickelson Creek Ranch."
Rhea understood the grubby appearance now. Apparently, when she had seen him in the market, he had just gotten off work.
"Hey, you're interested in him, aren't you?" Mona grinned at her.
"No way," said Rhea. "He's not my type."
"Well, who is your type?"
Before Rhea could reply, Trey Michaels staggered toward their table once more. He grinned, revealing straight white teeth. His face flushed, he pointed a finger at Rhea. "I remembered," he drawled. "The girl at the market. I knew I'd seen you somewhere."
Rhea glanced at Mona, who watched with an amused smile. Obviously, Rhea was expected to fight her own battle this round.
"Hey … let me buy you a drink," Trey continued. "Whyn't you and your friend …" He beckoned toward the table of cowboys, who had quieted down and watched them, hanging on every word.
Rhea couldn't stand another second. She grabbed her backpack and stood up to leave.
"But … wait …" Trey Michaels stood there, trying to keep his balance.
Rhea didn't wait for Mona. She stalked past the jeering cowboys and didn’t stop until she was outside the tavern. There she greeted the fresh air and coolness of the evening.
"Rhea!" Mona caught up and together they climbed the stairs to the street. "We didn't finish our drinks."
"I need to go home," Rhea muttered. "You can stay, if you want."
With a sigh, Mona shook her head and returned to the bar. Rhea walked the six blocks home. Her mind was in a turmoil. The encounter with Trey Michaels in the Smuggler had been disturbing. The nerve of him trying to pick her up, as if she -- Rhea Sinclair -- were a common bar fly!
The events in the Smuggler ran through her mind until she was practically in tears. As she turned the key in the door to their apartment, the sobs broke loose.
* * *
Rhea went to bed early but lay awake. Normally the cool evening mountain air put her right to sleep. Tonight Rhea was unable to relax and her mind whirled with mind chatter. She finally got up, pulled down the shades at both windows, and closed her bedroom door. Mona wasn't home yet.
She walked over to her piano and turned on the lamp. It was the only way. She sat down and welcomed the cool touch of ivory against her fingertips as she started into Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. The steady, slow rhythm of the broken chord accompaniment sent her into a mild trance as she struck the keys that made the adagio such a haunting piece. She knew it by heart, of course.
Memories and faces appeared before her as she moved through the music. With fervor she sought to rid her head of the day’s disturbances. There was a particularly annoying image of a drunken Trey Michaels hovering over her, reeking of liquor. Her heart pounded, then eased as the music soothed away the image.
Recollections of last summer intruded her thoughts as she walked. She recalled alpine picnics, the day hike up Buckskin Pass, with her hand swinging freely in the hand of Parker Sherwin. A tower of masculinity, Parker appeared taller and stronger in his Forest Service uniform. She recalled with tenderness the gentle touch as Parker placed moleskins on her blistered heels, how he had caressed her feet in the shade of an aspen grove, and smiled at her with compassionate blue eyes, his yellow hair blowing in the afternoon breeze.
Rhea held no doubts that last summer had been the happiest in her life. Before coming to Aspen for the Music Festival, she had believed her entire life comprised the piano. Years of intense study, encouraging parents, and lessons at Juilliard led to her scholarship at Aspen. Before last summer, her life had consisted of music classes, concerts and hours of excruciating practice.
But something had captivated her the moment the jet had descended onto Sardy Field that June day one year ago. The mountains overwhelmed Rhea. The air had been filled with the perfume of wildflowers that painted the green slopes, and the crisp, blue summer sky enthralled her. The sun poked its penetrating rays into her every pore, its energy rejuvenating a childhood she had stifled behind a keyboard. Rhea had felt alive for the first time in her life ... last summer.
Inspired by her new-found love of nature, she became a volunteer one day a week at the Forest Service. That's where she met Parker Sherwin, wilderness ranger in charge of seasonals and volunteers. He sent his crew off to repair gates, maintain trail heads, plant seedlings, check out campgrounds and other tasks. Rhea had grown fond of Parker, but so had the other women in the Aspen district. Parker had those extreme good looks and build that made women swoon. He was the type of man Rhea had dreamed of, but had long given up hopes of ever meeting.
Parker had paid special attention to Rhea. It pleased her that this ideal man found her attractive. If Aspen had caused Rhea to bud, Parker Sherwin helped her blossom. Soon it was no secret that Rhea and Parker Sherwin had fallen in love.
A man of the strictest morals, Parker lived alone in government housing. He wouldn't "ruin Rhea's virtue" until they were married. Rhea had been disappointed, because she had looked forward to discovering love's fulfillment.
Summer had ended, and by mid-September the aspens had turned to gold. With the wedding one week away, a rash of fires swept through distant parts of the forest. Parker looked forward to fighting them. He loved the excitement, not to mention overtime and hazard pay. He had made light of it so often that Rhea ceased to worry about him. But, on September 23, Parker was caught in an oak brush fire. He lost his life in the attempt to save trees of little significance.
Copyright ©2012 by Ann Ulrich
All rights reserved
Rhea Sinclair is a gifted piano student who discovers
true love only to have it
extinguished when her fiance is killed in a tragic forest fire.
Unable to leave Aspen, Rhea remains and endures a harsh
winter as a "local,"
clinging to the memories of Parker.
But then she meets Trey Michaels, an outfitter who is
determined to win her affections
despite the fact she wants only to remain faithful to Parker, whose spirit jobs alongside
of her on her daily runs on the Rio Grande Trail.
Rhea doesn't dare tell anyone she shares conversations with her unseen lover.
If you'd like to read the rest of SONATA SUMMER
you may ORDER THE BOOK from Earth Star or from Amazon.com
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